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Qualifier to 'mend Malaysia-N.Korea ties'; Political neutrality key in Asian football

MALAYSIA is keen on mending ties with North Korea though the Asian Cup qualifier between both nations after diplomatic relations between Putrajaya and Pyongyang soured following Kim Jong-nam's murder at klia2 on Feb 13.

It is learnt a "very senior government official" would like for the match to carry on at the Kim Il-sung Stadium on Oct 5, after it was postponed twice from its original date of March 28 due to geo-political tensions.

Malaysia and North Korea withdrew their representatives from their respective embassies following the saga. The Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang is being operated by the locals. None of the Malaysian staff have returned to the isolated nation.

It is also understood officials from North Korea, had during the Fifa Congress in Bahrain in May, invited the FA of Malaysia (FAM) to visit the country and its stadium ahead of the match. 

It remains unclear if FAM will take up the offer.

But as far as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is concerned, the match will go on in Pyongyang on Oct 5 despite repeated requests by FAM to play at a neutral venue.

Windsor at his office in Bukit Jalil yesterday. — @HareshDeol

"We stick by the rules. It makes the decision making process easy," AFC general secretary Datuk Windsor Paul John at the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. 

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry, according to Windsor, had issued a letter to AFC in May stating there was no travel restrictions for Malaysians to enter North Korea. 

"We have set a date and the match will take place as scheduled (Oct 5)."

Windsor stressed safety and security are AFC's top priority.

"We will not have a match if it is unsafe. Prior the North Korea-Malaysia match, we will see the AFC Under-23 Championship Group G qualifying matches (July 19-23) and another Asian Cup qualifier between North Korea and Lebanon (Sept 5)," he added.

"We will monitor the situation. If everything goes well, the match between North Korea and Malaysia will be held there (Pyongyang). We cannot rob the opportunity of any country the right to play in front of their own fans," he added.

Upholding political neutrality

This was not the only drama AFC faced in recent months.

A heavily militarised Korean peninsula and the on-going diplomatic tensions among gulf nations had somehow forced the regional body to send a potent message to its affiliates earlier this week — to remain politically neutral in trying times.

Football organisations in this continent, unfortunately, are often politically abused as political interference (or influence) is visible in most national associations - from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. 

"We had two days ago sent letters to all affiliates reminding them to respect the sport and be politically neutral," said Windsor.

Taming tensions in Korean peninsula, Middle East

South Korea's president Moon Jae-in told Fifa president Gianni Infantino say they were willing to work with their northern neighbour to host World Cup matches should the Far East get the 2030 gig.

The two nations are technically still at war as tensions escalated in recent months after North Korea ran several nuclear tests and missile launches that resulted Japan, China, US and Russia to strengthen their military presence at the borders and in the region.

"We are happy there are talks of progress in the Korean peninsula and are eager to see what takes place in the Middle East in weeks to come."

"It's good we are seeing such talks being initiated by the South Koreans. It's progressive. Such gestures and statements will send the right signals and this will be good for football. 

"We are excited to see what comes out of this. Football has and will always play a unifying role," Windsor added.

But the crisis between Qatar and its neighbour states is causing much concern although Windsor insists it's business as usual.

"Sponsorship deals have been signed, decisions have been made at AFC level. I doubt any party would want to jeopardise that as they would end up paying lots of money in penalty as it would be a breach of contract," he said.

"If there are travel bans, then we have to work around them he said."

Hope in Central Asia, Southeast Asia

Windsor, while admitting Central Asia and Southeast Asian football have a long journey ahead of them, believe some nations are heading in the right direction.

India will have two leagues running in the 2017-2018 season after AFC had recently recognised the cash rich Indian Super League.

"There will be two leagues, the Indian Super League and the I-League and it will see the participation of almost every district in India. The country will also host the Under-17 World Cup (in October). The idea is to get more people to play the game and unearth young stars.

"India is set to be more populous than China by 2050 and as such we hope the nation would produce more talents."

Windsor says war-torn Afghanistan has a strong national team as they are based abroad but the same cannot be said about Pakistan. The conflict between Fifa-recognised Pakistan Football Federation and Arshad Lodhi group has resulted in the matter being dragged to the court

While Pakistani officials fight to be the rightful guardians of the sport, they have hurt the careers of footballers and officials and the national league has not been running for the past two years. They are now placed 200 in the world standings — the worst ranked Asian nation. 

"We hope the decision by the courts by August or September will end this matter amicably. Pakistan have faced internal issues for far too long and we need to move forward. Hopefully by then, they will be in the right direction."

He also hoped new football leaders in Southeast Asia will help elevate their teams to new heights.

"Thailand is doing well. The Philippines have been amazing with their professional league and standing in the world ranking.

"We are seeing new leaders in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. I'm looking forward to see these nations progress," he said.

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