Over the past three decades, the football rivalry between Japan and South Korea has been among the most intense in Asia. On and off the field, the two nations have fought to establish their pre-eminence, often at the other’s expense.
From seeking to outdo one another on the pitch to engaging in a bitter, acrimonious battle for World Cup hosting rights back in 2002, the enmity between the pair has been palpable. Now that battle could be about to move onto the global stage.
Japan and South Korea take on Croatia and Brazil respectively in their second round matches on Monday, one playing immediately after the other in Qatar’s spectacular billion-dollar venues with the prospect of a quarter-final clash between the East Asian adversaries a possibility.
However fanciful it may seem, given upcoming clashes against the 2018 World Cup runners up and a country that has won the tournament a record five times, the potential of this great rivalry being played out in Qatar – and with a semi-final berth at stake – is palpable.
During a World Cup that has already seen numerous surprise results, anticipation has been growing in both nations. But the players are attempting to remain focused on their immediate task at hand.
“I know Korea is a rival for Japan but I don’t care about the next match,” said Ao Tanaka, who scored the goal against Spain that earned the Samurai Blue a shock 2-1 win and their place in the knockout rounds. “We need to focus on the Round of 16.
“Japan has never gone to the quarter-finals so this game is important for us. That’s why we need to prepare and focus on the next game.”
The co-hosting by the two nations of the World Cup in 2002, a hugely controversial move at the time, still looms large in their respective football histories.
Japan had seemed set to be awarded the rights before the Koreans pitched their bid, sparking an acrimonious battle that ended on May 31, 1996 in an unsatisfying compromise. The Fifa president at the time, Joao Havelange, managed to convince the Japanese to agree to sharing the rights between the nations in a unique arrangement.
The decision meant the main focus of the rivalry that had caused so much rancour within Fifa’s corridors of power was transferred to the pitch.
While the enmity between the nations has long been felt because of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula throughout the first half of the 20th century, in footballing terms it only intensified in the 1990s with the arrival of the J. League and the emergence of professionalism in Japan.
Previously, South Korea stood head and shoulders above their Japanese counterparts, first qualifying for the World Cup in 1954 and going on to appear at every tournament since 1986. Japan had never appeared at the finals.
That was to change in France in 1998, although only after a pair of keenly contested clashes in qualifying between the two countries. Subsequently, Japan have gone on to establish themselves as equals to the Koreans, and often to surpass their achievements.
Since 1992, the Japanese have won the continental title, the Asian Cup, on four occasions with the Koreans not claiming the trophy since the second of their two wins in 1960. Contests between the two remain intense, but perhaps not at past levels.
The 2002 World Cup, however, was a triumph. Both nations advanced to the knockout rounds for the first time, with Japan eliminated by Turkey in the Round of 16 while the Koreans improbably reached the semi-finals.
Established football nations such as Portugal, Italy and Spain were surpassed before the Guus Hiddink-coached Taeguk Warriors exited the tournament with defeat by a Michael Ballack-led Germany. The legacy of that tournament continues to extend far beyond those four weeks in June 2002.
“It was my first year as a professional, 20 years ago,” said veteran Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, appearing in his fourth World Cup squad in Qatar. “Time flies. I have good memories of 2002. I went to watch the semi-final, Brazil and Turkey. It was a good experience to feel the World Cup.
“We have both been the host country and the Korean team also have more experience in their team. I don’t think it’s the same as 20 years ago, today we can see that Australia have also got into the knockout tournament. We have to show that Asian teams are improving and show ourselves.”
That tournament influenced a generation in both nations as well as around the rest of Asia and the fruits of those successes, plus the enhanced football infrastructure developed to the benefit of the game in Japan and South Korea, continue to be harvested in Qatar.
“When I was young, in 2002, I saw Ronaldo and he’s my idol,” striker Hwang Hee-chan, who scored South Korea’s winner against Portugal on Friday, said of the gap-toothed Brazilian who led his team to victory over Germany in Yokohama. “After this World Cup I started playing football.
“When you meet Brazil you know they’re a very strong team. We don’t just want to enjoy, we want to win and we will try to win.
“Asian teams have advanced and have shown great capabilities and performances and I’m happy that Asian teams have done well. We’d like to take even more steps, not just us but the other Asian teams so we can go forward in the future.”