GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – Switzerland’s Alina Muller almost single-handedly spoiled Korea’s Olympic unity moment on Saturday, scoring four goals to power the Swiss to an 8-0 win over Korea’s unified women’s ice hockey team.
The game, played before South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, was the first played by a Korean hockey team at the Olympics.
It drew international attention for featuring players from both North and South Korea, who wore white jerseys with an image of a united Korean peninsula emblazoned in pale blue.
There was a carnival atmosphere as the near-capacity crowd cheered hard for their team from the moment the puck dropped and roared each time a Korean player held possession.
Some 100 North Korean cheerleaders were on hand, decked in red track suits, leading chants for the spectators and singing North Korean pop songs.
In addition to Moon and Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, the game was attended by Kim Yong Nam, North Korean titular head of state, and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. Earlier on Saturday, Kim invited Moon for talks in Pyongyang, setting the stage for the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years.
The countries are still technically at war since a 1953 armistice, though they have resumed talks after a year-long standoff between North Korea and the United States in which an exchange of threats between the heads of state elevated tensions and prompted the North’s continued missile and nuclear tests.
The Korean fans’ enthusiasm for Saturday’s game was not dampened by the scoreline, as many saw it marking progress towards peace on the Korean peninsula and hundreds of spectators waved unification flags.
“I feel really good and touched. I feel fortunate to see a historic game. This will contribute to inter-Korean peace,” said Jang Sung-ho, who came to watch the game with his seven other family members.
“It is a historic game. This small step will pave the way for inter-Korean peace,” 44-year-old office worker Oh Eun Seok said.
ON THE ICE
In the game itself, the Koreans proved no match for a Swiss team ranked sixth in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation and winners of a bronze medal four years ago in Sochi, Russia.
Switzerland went up 1-0 midway through the first period with a short-handed goal when Muller broke up the left wing and ripped a wrist shot under the glove of Korean goalie Shin So Jung. By the end of the period she would have a hat-trick, netting her third with 12 seconds remaining in the period.
Muller scored her fourth early in the second period. Phoebe Staenz and Lara Stalder added two goals each to round out the Swiss scoring.
Korean chances were few and they managed just eight shots on goal.
Korean coach Sarah Murray, a 29-year-old Canadian, used three of the 12 North Korean players assigned to her team for the game – forwards Kim Un Hyang, Jong Su Hyon and Hwang Chung Gum.
“I think they were nervous, coming out in front of such a big crowd and first game on the Olympic stage,” Murray said. “I think in the first period we were nervous, and it was hard to come back from that.”
Murray said her team’s chemistry was not an issue in the loss, though a tight timeline for integrating 12 new players had been a challenge.
“We’re really enjoying working with the North Korean players,” she said. “They work so hard, and they just want to learn, they want to get better. Obviously the time frame is very tough.”
After the game, Moon and the two Kims came down to the Korean team bench to speak with the players gathered on the ice as the cheerleaders sang in the background. They then posed for a team photo with the players.
North Korean player Jong, who had one of the team’s eight shots on the night, said she would like to see a unified team continue after the Olympics.
“As one we’re stronger than being a divided two,” she said through an interpreter. “As one unified team I hope we can go forward together.”
“And I think we will excel as one unified team, not just in sports, but in other areas as well.”
Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin, Grace Lee and James Pearson; Editing by Clare Fallon and Ed Osmond
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