Tomorrow night Japan will finally face down North Korea… on the soccer field. On Feb. 9th in Saitama (at the illustrious Saitama Stadium). The teams finished their last practices today (the DPRK team only allowed reporters to view 15 minutes of theirs as opposed to the Japanese team letting people in on the whole thing), and they both have expressed confidence that they will trounce the other team.
Sporting events in Asia have historically had a significant effect on postwar politics in the region. The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul were seen as coming-out parties for both countries. And the 2008 Games to be held in Beijing are set to do the same.
Besides such positive effects as international recognition, sporting events can fuel tensions between coutnries as well, as was seen in the booing and roughhousing of Japanese spectators at the 2004 Asia Cup in Beijing.
Emotions in Japan are running high, with people fuming over a number of issues, from the kidnapping of Japanese nationals to the nuclear threat. This game is sure to be historic, as beating the North Korean team will be cathartic for the citizenry, and losing would infuriate many.
And it is unlikely that North Korea will be able to do much against the powerhouse Japanese. They are far and away the best team in Asia, with a domestic pro league (the J-League — Go Sanga!) that has grown immensely in popularity over the past decade. As long as they maintain their composure and don’t get cocky (Taking the maverick Nakata off the roster should help) it will be an easy win for them.
The North Korean team was once great, humiliating Italy 1-0 in the 1966 World Cup at a time when the DPRK was outpacing South Korea in almost every aspect. But they have been completely absent from competition for ten years, from their last international appearance in the qualifying round for the 1990 Asia Cup, until after the joint Japan-Korea World Cup of 2002, which they boycotted. As in everything with North Korea, there is little information available about the team or how good they are, but it is expected that they are not at the internationally competitive level that Japan is.
Also causing scandal is the fact there are several zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan with Korean citizenship) representing North Korea who are pros in the J League, the most famous of whom is An Yong Hap (sp?), who plays for Nagoya. This fact comes as a surprise to many Japanese who are not aware that there are tens of thousands North Koreans living in their country, some of whom send money home, visit North Korea regularly, and attend schools that sing the praises of Kim Jong Il. North Korean athletes are also rumored to be physically reprimanded if they lose (though making it this far has brought them some nice benefits), so there are those who worry for the team as well.
I have a request: SOMEONE IN JAPAN PLEASE RECORD THE GAME DIGITALLY AND OFFER IT AS A BIT TORRENT!!!! I want to see this thing so bad!