Malaysia’s football association chief said Thursday he feared for the safety of the national team, suggesting players could be poisoned if the Malayan Tigers traveled to Pyongyang, where they are now officially scheduled to compete against North Korea next month.
The qualifying match on June 8 for the 2019 Asia Cup had originally been scheduled to be played in the North Korean capital on March 28. But, citing concerns about security, Malaysia’s football team announced in early March it was pulling out of the match amid a bilateral diplomatic row that followed the poisoning-assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother on Malaysian soil, according to local authorities.
Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the Crown Prince of Johor and president of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), said Thursday in a statement posted on its website that he was “very concerned about the safety assurance regarding the accommodation provided and the food.”
“According to the information I have received we need to bring our own food due to the possibility of sabotage,” he added among a list of concerns about playing the match in Pyongyong.
Back on March 15 – at the height of the diplomatic row stemming from the assassination of Kim Jong Nam – the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said the match would be played on June 8, but it was seeking a neutral venue away from Pyongyang, the original site.
The row saw Malaysia and North Korea expel their respective ambassadors and impose mutual exit bans on each other’s citizens, among other tense moments in a crisis that last six weeks.
It ended in late March when Malaysia agreed to exchange Kim’s body, along with two North Koreans suspected of playing a role in his murder in a chemical weapon attack at a Kuala Lumpur area airport, for nine Malaysians who were trapped in Pyongyang for weeks because of the exit ban. The two countries have since lifted reciprocal exit bans.
On Monday, the confederation, the governing body of 46-member football associations across Asia, announced that the match would be played in the North Korean capital on June 8 after all. The federation said it took the decision after receiving confirmation from FAM that “no government travel restrictions are in place.”
‘People’s safety first’
FAM officials voiced displeasure with the federation’s decision. Tunku Ismail said he would have preferred that the match “be played at a neutral venue for the sake of the players’ safety.”
He said he had spoken with coaches who have visited North Korea who told him of ongoing issues that could jeopardize the safety of national team members.
Tunku Ismail said he would find it difficult to allow players, coaches and officials to travel to North Korea, but was concerned that the team would forfeit the match and be eliminated from the Asia Cup tournament as well as “all future AFC matches.”
The Malaysian team would be forced to swallow an automatic 3-0 defeat to North Korea, as well as be hit with a fine of U.S. $50,000, if it decided to boycott the match, he said.
“Taking all this into consideration, and after weighing the pros and cons, as president of FAM, I am definitely not in favor of the team traveling to North Korea, but ultimately the final decision rests with our government and the sports ministry,” Tunku Ismail said.
“For me, the safety of the Malaysian people is of the utmost importance. We must always put the people’s safety first no matter the situation. This is what the Malaysian government and our football fans want above all else,” he added.
Malaysia’s youth and sports minister was non-committal in response to the concerns expressed by the FAM president.
“So far, the foreign ministry has not issued any travel advisory. With the latest statement by FAM’s president on the issue today, I had asked the foreign ministry to review the situation in North Korea and to inform me,” Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.