North Korea-Japan a complicated rivalry fit for a global stage

Tuesday afternoon's match at Kim Il-Sung Stadium in Pyongyang will be Samurai Blue's first visit to the secretive nation since 1989, and has already proved to be memorable
COMMENT
By Dan Orlowitz | Japanese Football Editor

At its core, the Fifa World Cup is about 208 countries vying to earn the title of world champions regardless of location, religion, or politics. The reality, as fans of the beautiful game know, is far more complicated. Yet although many nations across the globe have heated rivalries, perhaps no match represents the philosophy of the World Cup better than that of Japan and North Korea. Despite (or perhaps owing to) the political and logistical complications of the fixture, the penultimate Group C match for both teams has been highly anticipated since the draw was announced and is sure to not disappoint.

"The wide variety of storylines heading into Tuesday afternoon even threaten to overshadow the match itself"

The wide variety of storylines heading into Tuesday afternoon even threaten to overshadow the match itself. This is especially true considering that both teams already know their fate in this tournament; Japan are set to advance to the final round of Asian qualifying for 2014 while North Korea were eliminated and must now look towards 2018. But pride will be more than enough of a prize in the highly-charged environment.

The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations, and travel between them is heavily restricted. Japan has prohibited North Koreans from entering the country in principle since the rogue nation held nuclear weapons tests in 2006, but exceptions were made for the North Korea national team. The Japan side last made this trip way back in 1989; a scheduled 2005 match was relocated to Bangkok after North Korean supporters rioted in another qualifier against Iran.

Yet despite the political rift, football ties the two countries together. Japan holds a narrow lead in the series with a 7-4-5 record; neither team has lost at home while North Korea have four wins on neutral territory to Japan’s three. Three North Korean players are attached to J-League teams, while their biggest star, Jong Tae-Se, spent several years with Kawasaki Frontale before relocating to Germany’s Bochum.

"The Japanese national team will be followed by approximately 150 supporters and 10 members of the Japanese media who are making the trip"

The current Asian champions will not enter Pyongyang alone; they will be followed by approximately 150 supporters and 10 members of the Japanese media who are making the trip, in addition to several employees of the Foreign Ministry there to assure the safety of all Japanese citizens should trouble arise.

The fans, who paid at least €2600 each to participate in the tour, surrendered their mobile phones in Beijing before continuing to Pyongyang. They also came without the flags, banners, and drums that the Nippon Ultras supporters are known for; they were prohibited by the Japanese Football Association for fear of accidentally slighting the hosts and causing an international incident.

“As long as we support [Japan] with our voices and our spirits, they can’t lose,” said one supporter to Nikkan Sports before departing from Haneda International Airport.

Despite visible nervousness, the travelling fans were eager. “It’s a rare opportunity so we want to check out the culture,” another couple told the same newspaper.

They will watch the match at Kim Il-Sung Stadium with its artificial turf. The fixture was originally scheduled for Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Stadium, but relocated after North Korean officials claimed the cold weather would make the grass pitch unplayable. In addition to the man-made surface, Japan will face the additional challenge of an afternoon kick off due to power supply concerns. For a team used to playing on a grass field under the floodlights of Saitama Stadium, the environs could not be any more different.

"The game could get really emotional so we have to make sure to stay calm"

- Japan captain Makoto Hasebe

Finally, after all is said and done, there is the match itself. Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan side bested Jun Yong-Su’s North Koreans on September 2 on account of Maya Yoshida’s late goal. The hosts will not want to lose, especially in the event that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Il, attends the match. But despite the political implications and the challenges of a uniquely foreign and hostile territory, Samurai Blue captain Makoto Hasebe is focused on the game ahead.

"I'm not too worried about actually going there. What concerns me is the soccer aspect, such as the quality of our opponents, and the atmosphere of the crowd,” he told reporters covering the team’s practice session in Beijing.

"The game could get really emotional so we have to make sure to stay calm.”

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