It's the kind of headline even war hawks in Washington wouldn't dare dream up: North Korea delivers Iran a fatal blow. But on Saturday, it happened. In a stadium in Pyongyang, the football teams of both countries ground out a turgid goalless draw. That means Iran a nation where the public's passion for football rivals the religious fervor of its ruling mullahs will likely miss out on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. North Korea, meanwhile, stays on course to qualify for the first time in over four decades. (See TIME's photos of North Korea going to the polls)
The two countries may occupy the remaining seats in the Axis of Evil clubhouse, but they're hardly on friendly terms on the football pitch. In 2005, the last time the Iranians played a competitive match in the North Korean capital, the game turned sour. Slipping to defeat, North Korean players vented their frustrations on the Syrian referee, pushing the official to the ground. Irate fans hurled missiles plastic bottles, mostly at the Iranian team. The scenes then were broadcast via satellite around the world, giving watchers of the isolated communist state a strange, unprecedented glimpse of what civil disturbance could look like in the hermit kingdom. (See pictures of soccer riots at LIFE.com.)
Saturday's match, overseen by a stern, whistle-blowing Chinese referee, was far more controlled, though no less feisty. Opposing players harried and hounded, clattering into each other with hard tackles while creating few scoring opportunities. The North Korean spectators were uniformed in a sea of red shirts and caps, many banging drums in disciplined, choreographed rhythm. The cameras in the stadium, wielded by the North Korean authorities, didn't reveal whether the nation's Dear Leader and known football enthusiast, Kim Jong Il, was in attendance. Advertising billboards arrayed around the pitch for the benefit of the television audience touted companies like Epson and Minolta and Emirates airlines "Fly Emirates," read banners inside a stadium where few fans can board an airplane or will ever be permitted to leave the country.
The squads themselves were a picture of contrasts. The Iranians have been long considered one of Asia's more talented and enigmatic outfits, a team that likes to play an attractive and skillful game of neat touches and quick passing. They boast a number of flashy stars who ply their trade in some of Europe's elite football leagues. In the past, Iran's mullahs have issued fatwas chastising national team players for growing their hair long. Still, there were plenty of flowing locks on Iranian heads in Pyongyang; the team commands such adulation from the country's football faithful that even the clergy can be cowed.
Save for a few players born in Korean enclaves abroad, most of the North Korean team exists in obscurity at home. Ri Myung-guk, the mop-haired beanpole of a goalkeeper, seemed to characterize that alienation, his shoulder-padded jersey far too large for his alarmingly skinny frame, and his sweat pants always a fashion faux-pas in the football world pulling up short across his shins. Yet, the last time North Korea's footballers participated in the World Cup, they were the pride of the continent and the darlings of football fans around the world. In the 1966 tournament held in England, their side of amateur players given 1,000-to-1 odds of winning the competition made it to the quarterfinals, famously beating European powerhouse Italy along the way. It's a feat that was not matched by any Asian country until the 2002 World Cup, when the hosts, South Korea, reached the semis.
With two games left in this qualifying phase, the North is now in pole position to return to the global stage along with its southern neighbor. Iran, on the other hand, is floundering behind the Koreas and Saudi Arabia, and will need a miracle to make it to South Africa next summer.
Media buzz before the showdown in Pyongyang centered around Afshin Ghotbi, the Iranian-American who was named coach of the team ahead of the game in a bid supposedly encouraged by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to revitalize Iran's flagging footballing fortunes. Many in Iran thought Ghotbi ought to have been in charge from the very start of their qualification campaign last year. But politics and prejudice stood in the way of his appointment then after all, when Iran beat the United States 2-1 in the 1998 World Cup, a victory that saw millions of Iranians fill the nation's streets in celebration, Ghotbi was in the employ of the Great Satan, scouting on the nation of his birth. Now, Ghotbi's chances for success are slim, though he is bullish about his players. "The Iran team is oozing quality from every pore," he said earlier this week. On the basis of their limp display this weekend, though, the Iranians, and the American citizen at the helm, need all the enrichment they can get.