A footballer who spent time at Morton, Gretna and Stirling Albion has talked about the ‘surreal’ experience of playing a competitive match in North Korea.
Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu, who is currently with Indian Super League outfit Bengaluru FC, travelled to capital Pyongyang to take on local side April Twenty-Five in the AFC Cup - Asia’s equivalent to the Europa League.
Paartalu told BBC Sport: “Once we arrived [in Pyongyang] it was a complete eye opener. Everything you see and hear on the news is different to what you see first hand.”
Bengaluru - also featuring former Celtic striker Miku - had won the first leg 3-0, and were due to take on April Twenty-Five in the second leg at the 114,000-capacity May Day arena in the North Korean capital.
But despite the tie being played at the vast arena, fewer than 10,000 fans turned out to support April Twenty-Five.
“The stadium was humongous - if it had been full it would have been intimidating but not with 9,000 fans,’ said Paartalu.
“During the warm-up the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. But when the game started there was silence, it was not like a UK crowd,” he added.
Paartalu admitted he had some concerns before travelling to the secretive country, saying: “It’s one thing going to play somewhere where there may be a war going on, or an unstable area, but North Korea is a different kettle of fish.
“Once we arrived it was business, before we left, we were stepping into the unknown.”
Paartalu, who made over 100 appearances for Gretna, Stirling Albion and Morton between 2006 and 2010, revealed that the team had no access to phones during their visit, and were unable to use the internet.
He continued: “We arrived at the hotel around dusk, and wondered why all the street lights were not coming on. Someone told us it was to stop anyone viewing Pyongyang via satellite.
“The first time we got to the hotel it was like any other in the world, but there was a TV in the lobby, with a loop of [North Korea leader] Kim Jong-un. The propaganda starts as soon as you walk in.
“You get a sense that what you are seeing is a watered down version, what they want you to see. You question that all the time, ‘is this real?’”
While the team were in Pyongyang, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan on the morning of September 15. Although the match had taken place on September 13, the team was not able to leave until two days later.
Paartalu also revealed that a guest at the hotel had told them that they would have seen the missile flying overhead, if they had been outside the hotel at 6am.
Sespite the surreal experience, Paartalu described North Korea as a ‘beautiful country’, adding: “Even travelling around you are just excited to see it.
“I will never forget the trip and am so glad I got the chance to do it. People will ask me about it for years to come - not many people can say they have been to North Korea.”
Bengaluru now face FC Istiklol of Tajikistan in the inter-zonal final, with the winner qualifying for the overall final.