There were the players. The teams were announced over the tannoy. There was pre-match music, a DJ and national anthems. There was just one thing missing — the fans.
On Sunday, in Al Ain, North Korea versus Qatar was not the worst attended game in Asian Cup history. On September 16, 1980, just 300 supporters watched as North Korea took on Bangladesh in Kuwait City, according to AFC records. But Sunday's match was not far off — the official attendance was given as only 452.
Among them were a handful of hardcore football fanatics with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. Not included in the official total were the small number who climbed the hills next to the stadium for a free, if distant, view of the action. But most vocal were two groups of a few dozen North Koreans — one made up of mostly men and the other exclusively women — at opposite sides of the stadium.
Where they came from was a mystery. Those arriving at the stadium, most in identical white polo shirts and baseball caps, were not keen on speaking to the media. But once inside Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium, they found their voices, the male group orchestrated by a cheerleader decked out in red.
The scoreline did little to dent their enthusiasm, at least at first. Each Qatari goal — and there were two within the first 11 minutes — was greeted with a muted response, just a few cheers from the VIPs section, and the three supporters who openly flew their country’s flag throughout the game.
The North Korean women, meanwhile, met every foray into Qatar’s half with screams. Intermittently, they would thrust their miniature flags forward, as if casting fishing rods, and would chant in perfect unison. On the 17th minute they burst into song. It was no normal football chant — the strangely harmonious supporters sounded more like well-drilled choristers than Pyongyang ultras.
Slowly, the flag thrusting became rarer, as their heroes were taken apart on the pitch. But as the group of men slumped in their seats, even in the 88th minute, their side 6-0 down, North Korea’s women supporters let out audible yelps of excitement at a passage of play that only barely resembled an attack.
“The fans in the stadium cheered us a lot,” said a downcast Kim Yong-jun, the North Korea manager, after the match. “There was a lot of motivation from the fans.”
The few neutral fans, who turned out to simply watch a game of football in a major football tournament, could only look on with a mixture of amusement and bemusement.
Dario Basic works for Al Ain Club, coaching the under 18 team. “I went to Qatar against Lebanon, and I’ve seen the Jordan and India games as well,” the 33-year-old, from Croatia, said. “I’ll go to see any match. If I’m free, I’ll be there. Because I work with the young players, it’s good to see football at this level, so I see what level our players are at.”
In the run-up to kick off, business at the ticket office was slow. But a small number did decide to buy a ticket for what the history books will record as the least sought-after game of this Asian Cup.
“I’m a football fan and this championship is very strong,” said Isaac Kamusiime, 23, who works in security. “I like the English Premier League and I’m a Manchester United fan, but I’m working in Al Ain and I have the day off so decided I’d come. I love football.”
For Qatar, while impressing on the pitch, their journey in the tournament will likely be a lonely one. The UAE cut diplomatic ties with the country in 2017, making travel to the tournament difficult for most fans. The UAE and North Korea also do not have diplomatic ties, with the country not issuing new visas or business licences to the North Koreans since 2017.
“We know we don’t have our supporters here, but we know they are supporting from Qatar,” said Felix Sanchez Bas, the Qatar manager, after the game. “The players know this will be the scenario, they deal with it. When they are on the pitch, they focus on the football.”