North and South Korea finally come face to face — on the soccer field
Tokyo — North Korea fell to a 1-0 defeat by South Korea on the football pitch on Tuesday in a full-blooded international, given added spice by simmering political tensions between the two countries.
A freak own-goal by defender Ri Yong-chol 25 minutes from time proved the difference in a tempestuous East Asian championship clash bristling with testosterone and pent-up emotion. The result dashed any faint hopes North Korea had of winning the four-team tournament after they were sunk by a deflected late goal in a 1-0 loss to hosts Japan at the weekend.
"It was a special game for us — special for the players and for the country," North Korea coach Jørn Andersen, the former Norway striker told reporters. "I think, for the first 30 minutes, the players were a little bit nervous. They weren’t as free, like the game against Japan. We were unlucky to lose against Japan but I’m less satisfied today. I don’t know what the whole reason is that we didn’t play well."
Studiously avoiding eye contact in the tunnel before kick-off, both sets of players belted out their national anthems with gusto before a grudge match played out against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s recent missile launches and spiraling war of words with Washington.
North Korea, playing in red and cheered on by several hundred pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans living in Japan waving North Korean flags, tore into their cousins from south of their heavily fortified border.
Forward Kim Yu-song was booked for elbowing South Korea’s captain Jang Hyun-soo in an early flashpoint. But it was the South, held 2-2 by China in their opening game, who looked the likeliest to score, despite missing several key players such as Tottenham forward Son Heung-min.
Lee Chang-min fired a shot just wide with the best chance of the first half, then a snap shot from striker Jin Seon-guk rattled the post just before the hour mark.
Relations between the two Koreas have been stretched to breaking point after the isolated North’s sixth nuclear test in September, and tempers on the pitch threatened to flare on several occasions.
The match was punctuated by bone-crunching tackles and decided by the scrappiest of goals as a Kim Min-woo cross ricocheted off centre-back Ri and trickled into the net almost in slow motion.
Jong Il-gwan dragged a shot wide in a rare chance for North Korea five minutes later, but they never seriously looked like producing an upset following a plucky performance against Japan.
Despite UN sanctions against North Korea over the country’s nuclear weapons programme, their footballers were allowed to compete in the four-team tournament after the Japanese government waived travel restrictions. The biennial East Asian tournament was first held in 2003 when South Korea won the first of their three titles, a year after reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup as co-hosts with Japan.
The Japanese, who, like South Korea, have qualified for next year’s World Cup, beat China 2-1 in Tuesday’s late game thanks to goals from Yu Kobayashi and Gen Shoji to make it six points from six. The Blue Samurai, the Japanese national team, will clinch the title if they avoid defeat against fierce rivals South Korea at the weekend.