The 2014 World Cup hasn’t even started, but already Asian football fans are looking forward to a possible final four clash between Japan and South Korea, if they make it out of the group and the knock-out stages. And given the history between the two, it will probably not be all about football either.
The rivalry between two of the top Asian footballing nations is fraught with history, politics and diplomatic issues. Even as they co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, playing against each other has never been smooth for these neighbours. During the 2012 Olympic bronze medal match which they won 2-0, South Korean player Park Jong-Woo unfurled a banner containing the words “Dokdo is our territory,” in a clear reference to the islets that are at the heart of a territorial dispute between the two. He received a two-match ban from FIFA and faced a disciplinary hearing in front of the International Olympic Committee. During their match in the East Asian Cup in July last year, hardcore South Korean fans displayed a banner saying “A nation that forgets its history has no future,” causing the Japan Football Federation to file a case with the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) because political banners are a clear violation of FIFA rules.
But before football fans start picking sides, the two countries have to get past several tough matches first before they can even make it to the semifinals in Brazil. Both reached the final 16 in the 2010 edition, but this year, Japan, the Asian champions, have a slight advantage, having drawn a relatively easier group, going up against Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast. South Korea, the surprise semifinalists in the 2002 edition, will be facing Algeria, Russia and the highly-rated Belgium. But more than football and their political rivalry, both teams will be dedicating their campaign to the victims of tragedies in both countries. Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said they will be honoring the more than 15,000 who died in the 2011 disasters. South Korean coach Hong Myung-bo said it is his and the players’ responsbility to bring “a torch of hope” to the Korean people in light of the ferry disaster that left 300 dead or missing, most of them high school students. Sometimes, football is really more than just the game itself.
[ via AFP ]