Professional footballers often have to play in hostile and intimidating atmospheres, but Australian footballer Erik Paartalu found himself under the flight path of a ballistic missile in North Korea.
The much-traveled 31-year-old visited the secretive nation with his Indian Super League side Bengaluru FC for an AFC Cup play-off semifinal against North Korean team April 25.
Waking up one morning in his hotel in Pyongyang, Paartalu learned of North Korea’s launch of a missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
“We got up for breakfast and on the TVs in the hotel rooms we saw, ‘Breaking News, missile shot from Pyongyang over Japan,'” Paartalu recalls.
“If you would have been out the front of the hotel at 6 a.m., you would have seen the trajectory of the missile.
“I just kind of looked at my roommate and we were just both very shocked. When we heard about that we thought, ‘Let’s just get the hell out of here.'”
North Korea has rapidly progressed its missile program this year, launching 22 missiles during 15 tests since February, including one over Japan on Sept. 15 — the one that flew over the Bengaluru FC team hotel.
It has lead to heightened tensions with neighboring countries and, in particular, the United States and President Donald Trump, who North Korea recently said had “declared a war” on the country.
The launch over Japan was the third intermediate-range ballistic missile North Korea had tested since the turn of the year.
“For us it was a pretty intimidating environment just because of the situation that was going on,” said Paartalu, who has played in Australia, Scotland, China, South Korea, Thailand and India.
“A few of the boys weren’t even interested in football, they were just thinking about other things. And who can blame them?”
Force for good
Paartalu believes football teams should “absolutely not” be playing in North Korea and was vocal on his own social media accounts about moving the match to a neutral venue, as is often the case with international matches.
Despite initially not wanting to travel, one incident at the end of the match reaffirmed in Paartalu’s mind that football can always be a force for good.
“Football is an amazing sport, it’s the world game,” he says. “And even after the full-time whistle blew, the striker for the North Korean team came and gave me a hug and just said, ‘Congratulations.’
“You really felt like there was nothing else in the world, it was just two guys on a football pitch running around together.”