Matildas spirit forged in North Korea

Rough-house tactics, appalling refereeing and getting stuck in elevators on tours to Pyongyang; Matildas legends recall their tours of North Korea.


Ante Milicic took his Matildas side to the plush training environment of Antalya, Turkey last month to ready his team for the Women's World Cup.

If he was a masochist, perhaps he could have considered another Matildas training camp of days done past: North Korea.

The Australian national women's football side has completed three tours of the Hermit Kingdom, the first back in 1998.

"We were advised by the Government not to go," Matildas legend Cheryl Salisbury recalls.

North Korea and Australia didn't have a formal diplomatic relationship at the time, with the Koreans closing their embassy some 25 years earlier as they retreated into international isolation.

"We were the first Australian contingent of any sort to go into North Korea since they left Canberra," fellow ex-captain Julie Murray says.

"And it was actually amazing. Sad but amazing."

The Matildas decided on the precarious trip as they were in desperate need of quality international matches before their 1999 World Cup qualifiers.

"It was a bit scary. There's no consulate that you can run to and once you're in there, they could have kept us if they wanted to," Salisbury recalls.

"We were looked after. We weren't allowed to go outside the hotel without chaperones or North Korean dignitaries to look after us.

"We were staying in a hotel that was 30 stories high. I don't know if I actually ever saw anyone else in there.

"I'm sure we were only shown what they wanted us to see ... but we could see the power go out at certain times.

"We were on the 12th floor or whatever and we could be going out for dinner, and the power would go out and we got stuck in a lift. Or halfway up a stairwell.

"Some of the girls were a bit claustrophobic and so they didn't get in a lift.

"It's not like they're was any light from outside coming in. There wasn't any! It was pitch black.

"You'd just have to sit and wait until the lights came back on."

The series of three matches produced two 0-0 draws and a 1-0 win, with Murray scoring the only goal.

"There were actually quite big crowds," Salisbury said.

"Probably 10 to 20 thousand people. As you can imagine, there's not much else going on in North Korea.

"So on the way to the stadium, we would just see massive amounts of people just walking everywhere ... they were coming to watch us play.

"They were extremely tough games, tough conditions."

The Matildas returned to Pyongyang 2000, within weeks of the Sydney Olympic Games, for two more matches, lost 2-0 and 2-1.

A match report from team officials suggested the North Koreans' "rough-house tactics" and "appallingly bad home-town refereeing" may have influenced the scorelines.

Coach Chris Tanzey said Australia was "playing against 14", finishing the second match with nine women after his side were issued two red cards and seven yellows to North Korea's one caution.

They've been once more, in 2007, losing a must-win Olympic qualifier that denied them a place at the Beijing Games the following year.

Still, Salisbury - working as an Optus Sport expert for the 2019 tournament - was grateful for the experiences.

"They're the sort of games that make you stronger," she said.

"We were told not to bring computers or anything like that in.

"So we were basically left to entertain ourselves.

"We had to entertain each other, spend time with each other. We couldn't get away from each other, you couldn't go down to a coffee shop to get a drink or anything because we weren't allowed.

"It was the team building environment.

"And you see a lot of teams, no matter what sport, put in very difficult situations, to hopefully get them to rely on each other to get out of those situations. That's what North Korea did for us."


AAP