North Korea's footballers initially refused to play after a big screen showed the South Korea's flag beside their picture. Photograph: James Crossan/AP
London 2012 organisers suffered major embarrassment on the opening day of sporting action after North Korea initially refused to play their women's football match against Colombia. The North Koreans left the pitch in protest shortly before the end of their scheduled warmup in Glasgow last night amid scenes of high farce as the South Korean flag was shown on the Hampden Park big screens alongside the North Korean team lineup.
Kick-off was due at 7.45pm but the aggrieved players did not restart their warmup until just before 8.30pm, after the flag was replaced with the correct one on the scoreboards following extensive negotiations behind the scenes. The match eventually kicked off at 8.50pm.
The incident will cause huge discomfort to Games organisers. Hundreds of thousands of tickets for the men's and women's football tournaments were unsold, with a particular lack of interest in matches in Glasgow. An attendance of 15,000 was given for USA's win over France yesterday at Hampden Park – more than double that number of free tickets had been distributed.
The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games issued an immediate apology to the North Korea team: "Today ahead of the women's football match at Hampden the South Korean flag was shown on a big screen instead of the flag of North Korea," a Locog statement read. "Clearly that is a mistake. We will apologise to the team and the national Olympic committee and steps will be taken to ensure no repeat" a Locog statement said.
North Korea's coach, Ui Gun-sin, said that winning their match 2-0 against Colombia did not compensate for the mix-up. Ui said: "The national flag difference is a big problem. Our team was not going to participate unless the problem was solved properly. Unfortunately it took some time later for the broadcast [on the big screen] to be done again properly and we made the decision to go on with the match."
Ui added: "We were angry because our players were shown as if they were from South Korea which affects us very greatly. Our players cannot be shown especially with other flags, especially the South Korean one. If this matter had not been solved, continuing would have been a nonsense."
South Korea and North Korea, established as separate entities in 1948, have a tense relationship. Only two years ago, North Korean artillery killed four people, two from the military and two civilians, on Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea.
North Korea have a successful history of playing football on these shores. During the 1966 World Cup they achieved a famous upset, defeating Italy 1-0 at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park, before eventually losing 5-3 to Portugal in the quarter-finals. However, North Korea is familiar with Olympic controversies. The country boycotted the 1988 Games after being snubbed as co-hosts with Seoul, the capital city of their neighbours with whom they have a tense relationship.
The Colombia coach, Ricardo Rozo, felt the incident had affected his players. "It affected us," he said, "because you have to stop and we didn't know what was happening for a while but it was just something strange, something particular to this situation with North Korea involved and it hasn't damaged our feeling of the competition or the hosts."