Kunaal Majgaonkar is media manager of Bengaluru FC and travelled to North Korea with the team. He wrote this piece exclusively for ESPN.
The visa on my passport was enough to crease the tikka on her forehead. "Duniya South Korea jaati hai, aap ko kya hua ki aap North jaa rahe ho?" (The world heads to South Korea, what's the matter with you, you're heading North?), said the lady at the immigration counter in Mumbai.
As much as I wanted to explain the Asian Football Confederation's zonal grouping system, what the AFC Cup meant and how close we were to lifting it, I kept it equally honest with "majboori hai". (I have no choice). She replaced the firm thud with a gentle press of the stamp and let me pass. 4.25 SC vs Bengaluru FC in Pyongyang, North Korea, the Inter-Zone semi-final, was on.
We had read and heard that DPR Korea (they detest the prefix 'North') are very serious about what enters and what leaves their country and it took all of ten minutes of being on Korean soil, at the minimal yet impressive Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, for us to taste this first-hand. The man at airport security, inscrutable so far, finally showed displeasure when he couldn't get into our password-protected cellphones. We unlocked them on his order and he calmly worked his way to the phone gallery and flicked through images. Pooches, panoramas, wives, girlfriends - he scanned them all without batting an eyelid.
The nerves were palpable among the lads - had we forgotten to delete that Kim Jong-Un meme? Conversations on the squad group had banter about the trip that we reminded each other to erase. Had everyone remembered the drill? We came through unscathed on the phone front before books and folders on laptops were randomly opened. At the end of the exercise, there was relief and apprehension in equal measure.
The Mumbai-Beijing-Pyongyang ordeal - nine hours' flying time - was almost behind us when the conveyor belt came to a sudden, grinding halt. We were still 15 bags short and the lady at baggage enquiry didn't seem to sense our panic at all. She didn't know where the bags were, when they would come or whether they would come at all. An hour passed, then two, but there was no word on the bags. We were battered from the journey and the only people waiting at the airport. Then the lights were switched off, grid by grid. With no more flights scheduled to land, the staff had called it a day and we slowly trudged to the team bus, absolutely clueless.
Our hotel, the Yanggakdo International, is a swank structure standing 170 meters tall on Yanggak island on the Taedong river. It features a bowling alley, a billiards room, revolving restaurant, shoe repair shop, bar, book shop and a souvenir store. But what caught the eye was the massive television screen at the reception that had clips on loop of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Un and more Kim Jong-Un. From overlooking the launch of one of the many missiles, to intensely tracking an army boot camp, the 'Respected Marshal' did it all with a smile while people around him clapped. The team was bone-tired but no one was shifting gaze from the screen. The Koreans couldn't get enough of their leader and they gave us the same opportunity.
We arrived two days before the game - it could have been four days before, but that would have coincided with the Foundation of the Republic Day and we were advised that the country might be otherwise occupied. On match eve, and with no sign of the lost bags, we had to scrabble together a Plan B. The team was due to train at the huge May Day Stadium, which seats 150,000 people. While you comprehend the size, we'll tell you more about Plan B.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's bag had come through and he had an extra pair of boots. But Sunil Chhetri would have needed need two feet and half a hand to feel snug in one shoe. So the afternoon was spent fixing the jigsaw. We still needed more than a few pairs of boots but our request to be taken to a store was firmly turned down. We were told the shop would come to the hotel. Right enough, a bag full of football boots turned up at the hotel lobby. The lads weren't taking chances with fakes, though, and after much convincing, we were driven down to a sports store with our guide, a petite well-spoken girl named Sin Hyon Jo, in tow.
The customary match coordination meeting that day was an intense one given our baggage situation but we had convinced the Korean FA to request 4.25 SC's rivals Kigwancha SC to lend us their blue home kits for the game. Sandhu would have 'Ju Kwang-min' on his back while Udanta was set to be 'Choe Ok-chol' for the night.The team turned up for training with any uniform that would fit. The staff shared some of theirs, and some had lent others match kits. Footballs? They were lost too. Good hosts that they were, 4.25 SC lent us all of five footballs as we got down to focusing on the task ahead.
Then, like Santa Claus without the red, team manager Rosewall Da Cunha turned up in the middle of training with the kit bag containing our footballs slung on his shoulder. He had made a desperate trip to the airport to check on our baggage and says he had tears when he saw all 15 of them waiting to be picked up. We would take the pitch in the BFC blue and Chhetri, Khabra, Nishu, Lenny and the others would wear their own boots.
The May Day Stadium makes you feel insignificant in a matter of seconds and the more you look at it, the more you feel like the structure is closing in on you. There are echoes and then there are echoes at the May Day. A steady stream of people, mostly in olive green, began taking their seats. Everyone had their love for their leaders pinned on their shirt pockets. A group of close to 200 children, all dressed in home team red, were clapping and singing to the signals of an overenthusiastic chant conductor, another reminder of the North Korean preference for order. Not one note was off, not one clap was extra. Everything was measured.
The game itself was a 90-minute education on attack versus defence. Bengaluru had a 3-0 lead from the first leg and the onus was on 4.25 SC to make the play. They came out all guns blazing, we stood our ground and the match ended 0-0. The high-fives post game were poor versions but we had survived, the job was done.
With a day to spend in Pyongyang following the game, we weren't letting the chance to see the city, slip. We were given a guided tour but it was strictly on a beaten path. It started with a visit to the enormous Juche tower and ended with a trip to Ryomgyong Street - a lane peppered with high-rises that have no residents in it. We're informed that the 'Respected Marshall' hands apartments in these high rises to teachers, scientists and doctors as a gift for their noble work in building the nation. It's not what we wanted to see. But the choice was never ours.
Forever wanting to get into the habit of sending postcards from my travels, I chose North Korea of all places to start. Strangely, every postcard had a sketch of the regime trampling the American flag under foot. And every time I selected one, it was met with a cheer from the lady selling them. Ironic for a country that happily accepts dollars and has Oklahoma City Thunder jerseys hanging at sports shops.
The day we were leaving was when 'Respected Marshall' - as Kim Jong-Un is known there - decided to use a missile launch for an alarm. Al-Jazeera, one of the seven channels on the television at the hotel, told us of the developments kilometres away from where we were, from their studios in Doha. We stepped outside but the streets were oblivious to the mayhem their leader had caused earlier that morning. "If a thief enters your house, what will you do?" was the guide's counter-question to mine on the launch of the missile.
We left Pyongyang with more questions than we had when we arrived, and a fair number of myths busted. There is no 'list of 15 haircuts' to choose from for the residents there, as the internet had suggested. And even if there is, that's a pretty good number for variety. There are more than just two channels on television. Yes, six, is not the best number here, but it's more than two.
At the hotel the food was good; we always mail the hotel the kind of food we need and we followed the same drill here and they pretty much matched it for most parts. In other news, the city is clean, the roads are wide, there's a lot of green all around and everybody believes they've been placed in paradise. Then again, from what we were shown, their belief is on point.
We knew we had reached the airport only because Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il were smiling at us from a massive portrait that had an aeroplane in the background. They were, it seemed, happy that we had seen the DPR Korea they wanted us to see.