Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The roots of the Japan-Korea rivalry

By Diarmuid Delaney

Football, a truly world game, transcends race, culture and history, and at times acts as a catalyst for reconciliation between people and governments. In a region as historically and culturally diverse as Asia, football has indeed played out this role.

The Korea-Japan rivalry has emerged as the greatest in Asian football. Both countries compete for the title of ‘Asia’s best’ whilst sharing a turbulent history that further ignites this rivalry. Understanding this history, as well as what significance the 2002 World Cup had for the football of these countries will reveal the depths of this great rivalry.

Like Japan, Korea’s first contact with modern football as we know it today came through European influence in the late 19th century. However, as Dr Leonid Petrov of the University of Sydney and former translator for the 1994 South Korean Olympic team states, the roots of the game can be found deep in their national identity. Koreans recorded a ball-kicking game called ch’ukku in historic documents from over nine hundred years ago, taking their claim on an indigenous form of football.
Korea’s annexation at the hands of Japan between 1910 and 1945 was a dark period in Korean and Japanese history that continues to be a source of tension between the two countries to this day. This period of occupation however, according to the Korean Football Association (KFA) website empowered football into a means of alleviating the frustrations of the subjugated Koreans and fostering the hope of liberation’.

Football became a way for Koreans to sustain their nationalism, and soon enough they began to outperform the Japanese on the pitch. Select Korean sides toured Japan in 1926 and 1935 respectively, one side touring unbeaten and another, Seoul, winning the All-Japan football tournament.

The Japanese influence on Korean football during the colonial period can be summarised in the words of one Korean coach, who before a game against a Japanese opponent said ‘You are not just playing football. You are fighting for the independence of the Korean people’.

Japan’s eventual defeat at the end of World War II did not change any resentment felt toward the former colonisers. This was also manifested in football.

Under Syngman Rhee’s Government, relations had not yet been normalised and animosity still remained. President Rhee was reluctant to have any sporting contact with Japan, however, Vice President Lee Ki-boong, also president of the Korea Sports Council, took advantage of Japan’s economic success and Rhee’s hatred of Japan, adding that there was one field we can always beat Japan: football.

He said “even before we were liberated we were always better than the Japanese at football”. Rhee allowed the 1954 World Cup qualifiers to go ahead on two conditions, that both games be played in Japan and that Korea return home triumphant or “drown themselves in the East Sea”. 

South Korea easily qualified, marking their first appearance in the FIFA World Cup. Korea’s dominance over Japan continued into the 1960’s with Japan’s well credentialed coach Dettmar Cramer’s team unable to yield a single victory over the Koreans.

The 1970’s and 1980’s proved equally successfully with Japan only managing four victories in thirty-one matches. However, Japan was beginning to make inroads into football and in a 1994 World Cup qualifier in Doha, Japan beat Korea and Seoul Sports ran the headlines ‘disgrace’. Despite the 1965 normalisation, the lingering resentment still continued to be manifested in media, politics and football.

The bidding for the 2002 World Cup provided another opportunity for Korea and Japan to play out the historical legacy. Hosting the World Cup became a matter of national pride with the dominating motivation ‘to beat Japan’. This was evident when the head of the Korean bidding team said “Our pride and history demand that we beat Japan. If we lose, it will hurt us greatly”.

With this in mind it was not a surprise that FIFA president Havelange considered the idea of ‘co-hosting’ the World Cup. Despite the economic successes of both countries and the successful adoption of democracy, both countries had failed to heal the wounds of history. Awarding the World Cup to one over the other would have unforeseeable consequences. On the 31st of May 1996, Joao Havelange awarded the 2002 World Cup hosting rights to Korea-Japan, in line with FIFA’s mission statement of using football as a unifying force.

Despite the historical legacy and strained relations between the two countries, Korea and Japan co-hosted a successful event dubbed by FIFA President Sepp Blatter the ‘World Cup of Smiles’. Although there were a few hiccups on the way such as the controversial Japanese textbook issue and the official order of the naming of the countries (i.e. Korea-Japan or Japan-Korea), co-hosting the event clearly improved the relations between the two countries, on a practical level and conceptual level. Chung Mong-Joon, chairman of the Korean Organising Committee expressed his deep gratitude that the ‘2002 FIFA World Cup has helped to bring the people of these two countries closer together’.

In a sign of the changing views of Japan and the rivalry, Japan defeated Korea in the semi-final of the 2011 Asia Cup in Doha. Instead of ‘disgrace’ on the front page of Seoul’s sports paper however, Koreans were lamenting the retirement of two of Korea’s 2002 World Cup heroes, Park Ji Sung and Lee Young-Pyo. Although the historical legacy between the two countries are the roots of the rivalry, the emergence of both countries as Asia’s football’s powerhouses continues to fuel the rivalry into arguably the biggest rivalry in Asian football. 



  1. It is great that such a rivalry exist because they can improve as a team and those games will be interesting to watch every time that they play.