The Koreans earned themselves third place in the Olympic tournament, and exemption from military service, thanks to a goal in each half from two of their star players.
The game began with both sides playing an intense, uncompromising brand of football, and after several yellow cards, it was South Korea who took the lead through Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young in the 38th minute.
The second half saw South Korea double its advantage in the 56th minute through their captain Koo Ja-Cheol, and they managed to hold off the Japanese attacks and earn themselves third place in the tournament.
South Korea made three changes to the team that lost 3-0 to Brazil in the semi-finals, with a recall for Arsenal’s Chu-Young Park up front in place of Hyun-Sung Kim and also for first-choice goalkeeper Sung Ryong-Jung as he returned from injury.
Meanwhile, the Japanese named an unchanged side from their 3-1 defeat to Mexico in the other semi-final, with Kensuke Nagai retained as the lone striker.
The first half began with the Millennium Stadium bathed in late-evening sunshine, but both sides began cagily as they struggled to keep the ball on a slightly bobbly pitch.
The South Koreans initially enjoyed slightly more possession in the opening stages, but neither side managed to create any real openings, other than a skied volley by Japan’s Keigo Higashi in the 16th minute.
Despite the lack of clear chances, the game had a very intense feel to it, with Korea’s Oh Jaesuk and Sung Yong-Ki both being cautioned within a couple of minutes of each other for fouls on Japan’s Yuki Otsu around the 25th minute.
It took until the 27th minute for either side to create what could be called a goalscoring opportunity, as Japanese midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake tried to curl a shot around Sung-Ryong Jung in goal, but the Korea managed to push the ball clear.
The game then descended into near-chaos in the 34th minute, as Korea’s captain Koo Ja-Cheol slid in with a bad tackle on Otsu right in front of the Japanese bench, earning the skipper a yellow card and sparking some minor scuffles between the two teams.
However, Japan created a good chance of their own in the 36th minute, as from a corner, Gotoku Saki found himself unmarked but could only put his header wide of the post.
Immediately, Korea staged a breakaway move, and after receiving a long ball through, Park Chu-Young managed to wriggle past several Japanese defenders and slot home for a superb individual goal in the 38th minute.
It was perhaps slightly against the run of play, but the Koreans had a chance to double their lead just a minute later, as the ball dropped to left-back Yun Suk-Young inside the penalty area, but he sent his shot wide of the post.
Japan’s Takahiro Ogihara earned a late yellow card, then the first half ended with the Koreans just edging the game 1-0.
The second half began in a similar vein as the first, but in the 49th minute Park had a chance to double his tally for South Korea as he nearly latched onto a poor backpass, but Shuichi Gonda was out from his goal quickly to avert the danger for Japan.
Japan then created a golden opportunity in the 55th minute through Otsu, who was instrumental in a number of intricate passes with team-mates, but he scuffed his shot and it was not picked up by any of the players who had joined him in the Korean penalty area.
However, just a minute later, the Koreans were celebrating again, as a long ball was taken on by captain Ja-Cheol, who controlled the ball and calmly stroked it home to give his side a 2-0 lead just before the hour mark.
The Koreans clearly had the momentum, and in the 59th minute Kim Bo-Kyung tried to curl a shot into the top corner, but saw it clawed onto the post superbly by Gonda, who managed to keep his side in the game by his fingertips.
The game then descended into something of a midfield battle, as both teams struggled to gain any supremacy in the match and were unable to keep possession for a good amount of time.
In the 87th minute, Japan thought they had pulled a goal back through Yoshida’s header from a corner, but the referee ruled that South Korea’s goalkeeper Sung-Ryong had been impeded.
However, the Japanese could not create any further chances, and it was South Korea who took the bronze medal in the tournament at the final whistle.