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An American In North Korea, Playing Soccer Amid A Bomb Test

North Korea and Lebanon met in an Asia Cup qualifier in September. Soony Saad wasn't exactly looking forward to the matchup. (Kim Won-jin/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea and Lebanon met in an Asia Cup qualifier in September. Soony Saad wasn't exactly looking forward to the matchup. (Kim Won-jin/AFP/Getty Images)
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Soony Saad grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, with three siblings.

"And soccer was basically my whole childhood," Soony says. "We all played together on the same team, with my father being the coach. That led me into the direction and the career path that I've taken today."

Well, that — and considerable talent. Soony Saad plays professionally these days for Sporting KC in Kansas City.

Not the first story about a kid who parlayed his love for a sport into a career, is it? But this guy’s soccer career would take him to more places than most people see in a lifetime — at least one of which he'd prefer to have avoided.

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    Soony aspired to play for the U.S. national team. The one that competes for the World Cup. Sometimes.

    But despite his MLS experience and a couple of years playing professionally in Thailand, he didn’t get the call — from the U.S. coach. But his play did impress the coach of the men's national team in Lebanon. He knew Soony's father had brought the family from Lebanon to the U.S. before Soony was born. Pair that circumstance with the Lebanese team's modest standing in the world soccer table — they are currently considered the planet's 100th-best team — and you can understand the coach’s interest.

    'You Guys Need Me For This One? You Sure?'

    So in November 2016, Soony Saad suited up for Lebanon and began checking out the team's itinerary for Asia Cup qualifiers.

    "It was Hong Kong, Malaysia and North Korea," Soony says. "And in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, 'North Korea. Like — that means we have to travel there.'"

    Yeah. Only "in the back" of his mind. Because the trip to North Korea wouldn't come around for a while. But the months passed, another autumn arrived, and the trip to Pyongyang loomed.

    "That's when it hit me," he says. "And I was like, 'Jeez, man, we have to go.'"

    And on other days, Soony was like, "Jeez, man, maybe I don’t. And maybe I could say something to the manager ... "

    "'You guys need me for this one? You sure? I can just chill,'" Soony remembers thinking. "I was definitely afraid that I would be held at the airport when I landed. I was afraid that they were going to go through my laptop, my electronic devices, maybe see that I’m from America, or even see my American passport."

    "In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, 'North Korea. Like -- that means we have to travel there.'"

    Soony Saad

    When the time came to board the plane for last month's match against North Korea, Soony took precautions.

    "I grew out my beard to look extra Lebanese," he says. "I even spoke in a Lebanese accent when I spoke in English. I really hid the fact that I was American."

    He held on to his Lebanese passport. He handed his U.S. passport to the team manager.

    "I said, 'Hide that. Give it to me on the flight back to China.'"

    The tension for a U.S. citizen who wasn't Dennis Rodman arriving in North Korea was palpable. Not everybody made it out on schedule. Not everybody made it out.

    'I Woke Up At 5 A.M., And I Heard Outside This Eerie Music'

    Soony says it first began to feel strange when the team landed in Pyongyang:

    "It was the first time that I'd stepped into an airport and didn't hear a thing," he says. "It was silent. I mean, there was no PA announcements, there was no buzz or chatter. It was just quiet."

    Wherever they went, Soony and his teammates were accompanied by guides. That was no shock. But he did get a surprise when he was taken to his hotel room. There was a TV there, so information — of a sort — could come in. Though the Lebanese team couldn't communicate with anybody back home while they were in North Korea. Which was too bad, because on the morning of Sept. 3, two days before the game, they had something to report.

    Soony put on a beard to look "more Lebanese" while in North Korea. (Soony Saad)
    Soony grew his beard to look "more Lebanese" while in North Korea. (Soony Saad)

    "I woke up at 5 a.m. and I heard outside this eerie music," Soony says. "Maybe it was the national anthem playing in the streets or maybe it was the military compound not far away playing something. But I also heard chanting. I turned to my roommate, who's from the U.K., and we were, like, 'What’s going on?' We looked outside, kinda freaking out. We turned on the news, and it says ... "

    (Soony speaks just enough Korean so that he could understand a line from the broadcast.)

    "...'North Korea tests hydrogen bomb.'"

    Yeah, Soony Saad, U.S. citizen with a day job playing soccer for Sporting K.C., was in North Korea when Kim Jong-un tested a hydrogen bomb, President Donald J. Trump having threatened him with "fire and fury."

    But later that morning, when Soony left the hotel, life seemed to be going on as if the world might not end that day.

    "I'm not sure if the population even knew what was going on," he says. "But, generally, everyone was walking on the streets, you'd see children playing in the streets. It didn't seem like anything had changed."

    Eruption And Silence In A Close Contest

    One thing that hadn't changed — the explosion of a powerful nuclear device notwithstanding — was the soccer schedule. Two days after Soony and his teammates had learned that they'd been within about 100 miles of the test, they marched into the stadium in Pyongyang, where 31,000 people were prepared to greet them.

    "And it was loud," Soony says. "And everyone in the stadium had these wooden clappers. And at the halfway line, there was about 12 or 15 cheerleaders that were girls. They were wearing army uniforms. They would all call out in sync — I'm telling you — in sync. Their heads would move in sync, their bodies would move in sync, and they would all chant something.

    "And at first, we were like, 'This is all they got? Just 15 girls chanting?' And then, all of a sudden, after the girls would chant something, the entire stadium would just erupt, chanting that same thing."

    Which must have been pretty impressive.

    North Korea scored first.

    Soony Saad didn’t start that game, and from his perch on the Lebanese team's bench, he noticed something he'd never seen before.

    "They gave their elderly the front seats of the stadium," he says, "kinda the lower seats, where it's easier to see. And the elderly were able to wear whatever they wanted to the stadium. But the majority of the stadium was university students, and they all wore white with a red tie. So the stadium was all white, except for the section of the elderly."

    Soony's stint as an observer ended in the closing minutes of the match, by which point he'd blocked out the distractions the trip had involved.

    "I ended up coming into the game in the 86th minute, or something like that," Soony says. "We were down 2-1, and we were able to score in the last minute of the game to tie it, 2-2."

    'I Can't Believe I Was That Excited To Land In China'

    It was a point on the road for Lebanon, a triumph unappreciated by the 31,000 North Korean fans and the TV play-by-play guy. As soon as the game was over, Soony Saad became conscious of those distractions the game had banished. He began thinking again about what it meant -- or what it might mean -- to be a U.S. citizen in North Korea while the leader of that nation and the U.S. president were shaking their missile-clutching fists at each other. And his thoughts turned to home.

    Soony (front right) helped Lebanon come out of their match in Pyongyang with a tie. (Soony Saad)
    Soony (front right) helped Lebanon come out of their match in Pyongyang with a tie. (Soony Saad)

    "ASAP," Soony says. "I said I wanted to leave that night. But I couldn’t even leave the next day, unfortunately, because the next flight out of North Korea was on Thursday, and we had played on Tuesday night. I'll tell you, Wednesday was a very long day."

    And one thing you probably wouldn’t want to do on a very long day in North Korea is let on that you’re from the U.S., right? Right?

    "I actually told the North Korean tour guide," Soony says. "I was like, 'Actually, you know, I was born in America and I live in America.' And the guy was nice. He's like, 'Yeah, we like Americans. We have no problem with Americans.' And I was, like, 'Oh, that’s good to know.'"

    Good, indeed. Maybe even hopeful. Still the game was over, and Soony was very pleased when the plane carrying his team finally took off. He was even more relieved when it landed.

    "I can't believe I was excited to be in China, really," Soony says, laughing. "I never thought I'd say that. I can't believe I was that excited to land in China."

    Soony Saad's back in a Sporting KC uniform this week. They play this weekend at Real Salt Lake. Probably won't even feel like much of an away game to somebody who's been on the pitch in North Korea.

    This segment aired on October 21, 2017.


    Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
    Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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