An amateur Hong Kong soccer team became the first to take on a professional North Korean team in a friendly match in Pyongyang last week – and the first foreign amateur team to play professionals from the hermit kingdom.

The side from Wanchai Spartans FC got off to a strong start and were up 2-0 by half time, but were crushed 5-2 after the break.

“Within the first 20 minutes we had two goals, but then they started bringing on better players,” said Wanchai Spartans’ Richard Cowley, who helped organise the trip. “They were good.”

Cowley wasn’t disappointed with the result, noting the North Korean team was in the equivalent of the English Premier League.

“It was like playing the equivalent of Manchester United, but in North Korea,” said Cowley. “They’re small, nippy players and technically very good. We’re a social team – we drink – and in the end the level of fitness was telling.”

Eleven players from Hong Kong and two of the players’ girlfriends flew to Pyongyang for the three-day trip, organised by Koryo Tours.

“We’ve been running football tours since 2003 and took in a Hong Kong team in 2005,” said Koryo Tours manager Simon Cockerell. “We’ve arranged games against university teams, tour guides – our local partners are very good at finding the right team to play against.”

The North Korean side went by the name “Moranbong Team”, although that was not their real name, which Cockerell said had to be kept confidential.

A couple of staff from the British embassy, some tourists and a handful of well-wishers turned out to watch the match at the National Football Stadium, behind the May Day Stadium – the venue of the annual Mass Games.

Wanchai Spartans have a reputation for enjoying the social side of the sport, and were a little disappointed when the North Korean team turned down their offer of an after-match drink, but they settled for a group photo.

“They don’t drink because they’re professional players,” said Cowley. “They didn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak any Korean, but it didn’t matter – football is a universal language.”

The North Korean national team famously beat Italy 1-0 in the World Cup in England in 1966, but then lost to Portugal in the quarter-finals.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Hong Kong amateurs do battle in N Korea. >> See article