What Sporting KC'S Soony Saad Has To Say About Playing A Match In North Korea

Oct 20, 2017

Sporting Kansas City will have its players back from international duty for its final game of the regular season at Real Salt Lake on Sunday. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber—the three Sporting players on the U.S. team—faced disappointment after the team failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Meanwhile, Soony Saad, who plays with the Lebanese national team, had perhaps the most unusual international season this year. Saad was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and grew up playing soccer with his three siblings. All the boys played on a team for their father, who’s from Lebanon and came to the U.S., in the early 1980s.

During Saad’s first stint with Sporting five years ago, the forward got a call from management of the Lebanese national team. He was only 20 at the time.

“When the national team comes knocking at your door, it’s really hard to turn down. I hadn’t received anything from the U.S., not that I expected anything, but it was a good opportunity to get professional first-team minutes with a full team, a full national team,” says Saad.

Saad scored a goal in his debut with the Lebanese team and he’s answered the call each time Lebanon has summoned him. Early this year, he found out the team would be facing North Korea as it tried to qualify for the Asian Cup.

“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, 'I mean North Korea. That means we have to travel there because we do have to play home and away' — It was something I put on the back burner — 'Aw, I’ll get to it when the trip is coming,'" he says of his internal dialogue. 

Then when late August rolled around, it was time to travel to Pyongyang. Saad says he didn’t want the North Koreans to know that, despite being with the Lebanese team, he’s an American citizen. He says he feared being detained at the airport.

“I was afraid that they were going to go through my laptop, my electronic devices and maybe see that I’m from America or even see my American passport,” Saad recalls. “Luckily I used my Lebanese passport and I handed my American passport to the team administrators.

"I said, ‘Hide that.’”

After landing without incident in the early morning hours, Saad recalls hearing what he describes as “eerie music and chanting” outside his hotel room the next day. He says he and his roommate, a British citizen, turned on the TV to figure out what was happening.

“They did have TVs in the room surprisingly,” says Saad. “But we turned on the news and it says, 'North Korea tests hydrogen bomb.' Which was probably only 100 miles way, not even. We were like, ‘What?!’”

The underground test caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake and is estimated to be 17 times as powerful as the nuclear bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. After collecting themselves, Saad says the Lebanese team didn’t stray from preparing for their soccer match against the North Koreans.

“Obviously, the elephant in the room is, ‘Did that just happen?’ But it seemed really odd that we just carried on,” says Saad. “It didn’t seem like we were going to war. It seemed like everyone was safe, but the reality of it was that they just tested a nuclear weapon a 100 miles away. I wanted to leave ASAP.”

But the Lebanese team kept its focus on the match, which is something that Saad has become accustomed to as a professional.

“That was the story of our trip over there,” says Saad. “Nothing else politically mattered. Nothing else but our game mattered. It sucked that we didn’t have WiFi, it sucked that we couldn’t communicate with the outside world, but we went there for a job and we ended up getting the job done.”

The match was a 2-2 draw, but Saad says it felt like a victory in a tough road environment.

“The North Korean stadium was pretty packed. I want to say it (capacity) was about 65,000. About 60,000 were packed in there. It was loud. It was surprisingly loud."

Saad says he was relieved when he safely left North Korea, but says in retrospect he’s glad he made the trip.

“For myself to finally say that I went there, I was able to see first-hand what this place is, what everyone’s talking about, what it actually is, it’s really a nice feeling to say that I’ve been to North Korea. It’s actually a beautiful country.” 

Last week in Beirut, Lebanon defeated North Korea, 5-0, in a rematch. To Soony Saad, the setting was much more comforting than just the score.

Greg Echlin is a frelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.