It was 1998. The internet was a relatively new concept. Social media hysteria didn’t exist. COVID19 wouldn’t stop the world in its tracks for another two decades.
However for the Australian women’s national football team, a different but equally daunting challenge was on the horizon.
To prepare for the 1999 World Cup qualifiers, Australia had the somewhat intriguing task of going to North Korea for a three match ‘friendly’ series. Australia was part of Oceania back then so there was no specific reason to head to Asia as preparation. But the North Koreans, a strong nation in female football, extended the invitation to Australia which was duly accepted.
On the trip was Shelley Youman, then aged 27. Football almost took a backseat as Youman and her team mates had a life experience that none of them would ever forget.
The Matildas came back with two 0-0 draws and a 1-0 win courtesy of a Julie Murray winner in the 72nd minute of the third game. The performances were impressive when considering the surroundings.
“The results were 0-0, 0-0 and 1-0,” recalls Youman. “We were always going to find it hard to win the series in their country, the refereeing was quite biased.”
All three matches were played at the National Stadium in Pyongyang which was full of North Korean citizens, most if not all of whom would have had no choice but to attend the game. A crowd of 58,000 attended the first game, 15,000 were at the second one and 22,000 attended the decider.
Also in attendance for all three games was North Korea's notorious leader Kim Jong-il.
Youman, who currently works in the disability sector as a co-founder and director of One Community, still remembers details of her trip to the unknown some 22 years later.
“The most memorable thing for me was seeing the way these people lived and what they believed,” she explains. “Every person wore a badge with their leaders face on it.
“There was a lot of poverty (although they did well to hide it) and no cars on the road. The field was hand cut.”
Youman’s predicament was more challenging than it was for most. She already had a young family and was juggling being a wife and mum with playing for Australia. Going head first into a political storm wasn’t the most ideal way to experience playing for your country.
“I had three small children aged two, three and six at the time so my biggest fear was leaving my family at the time,” says Youman.
“We were warned not to go by the Australian Government at the time so there was a lot of hype with the media.”
Youman, who won 24 caps overall for Australia, recalls flying into North Korea, into a fragile political situation that very much carried the risk of ending badly.
“I think my scariest encounter was boarding a North Korean airline in China to make our way to North Korea,” she remembers.
“There was no air conditioning on board and we were handed hand-held fans as we boarded. The plane also seemed to struggle to get off the ground.
“North Korea’s major airport was a bit daunting with loads of military and weapons surrounding us and no friendly faces.”
Upon arrival, it’s fair to say the Matildas weren’t given the red carpet treatment and there was hardly any fanfare that normally accompanies an international tour by a sporting team.
“We had a young North Korean guide for the time we were there who knew nothing about the outside world,” remembers Youman. “All our guides on that trip were beautiful people and my heart broke for them.
“There was only North Korean TV stations and the rest of the world was cut off to them. They believed they had won wars against the USA and that the USA were their enemy.
“We were not allowed to go outside of the hotel unless we were with the team and official guides as we were told they might think we were Americans and that would not be good.”
The strangest experience according to Youman was being totally oblivious to the outside world.
“There was a missile shot into USA waters while we were there but we heard nothing about it although it was all over the news in outside countries.”
There have been harrowing tales over the years from various players that made that controversial trip. From being stuck in lifts surrounded by darkness, to the seemingly creepy feeling of being monitored in everything they did.
“When making calls back home, often lines went dead when you were talking about their country,” remembers Youman.
The Matildas of 2020 won’t have to go to North Korea any time soon, however a trip to Asia for the Olympics was something they were all looking forward too. Sadly, the current COVID19 pandemic that is sweeping through the world has put those plans on hold.
The good news though is that Tokyo 2020 will go ahead albeit a year later. Youman is hopeful rather than optimistic of how the women will perform in Japan next year.
“My thoughts on the Matildas for the 2021 Olympics at this time would have to be that they will be in the top 10, but my thoughts could change.
“For me it depends on who is coaching and leading them into the 2021 Olympics. We have a way to go if we want to be a medal chance and I think the right coach could get the best out of this team.
"We need to keep up with the rest of the world and at present I'm not seeing that.”