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.
Japan, ’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 Korea 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. University of Sydney
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, , winning the All-Japan football tournament. Seoul
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’.
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 : football. Japan
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”.
The 1970’s and 1980’s proved equally successfully with
only managing four victories in thirty-one matches. However, Japan Japan was beginning to make inroads into football and in a 1994 World Cup qualifier in Doha, Japan beat and Seoul Sports ran the headlines ‘disgrace’. Despite the 1965 normalisation, the lingering resentment still continued to be manifested in media, politics and football. Korea
The bidding for the 2002 World Cup provided another opportunity for
Korea and 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”. Japan
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 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’. Japan
In a sign of the changing views of