Korea v. Japan – Match Preview: Part I (FootKorean)

Korea v. Japan – Match Preview: Part I (FootKorean)

Welcome to Part I of our special editorial series! As the match between Korea and Japan on October 12th nears, the third match this year between the East Asian giants, FootKorean has decided to collaborate with longstanding Japanese football website The Rising Sun News to provide our readers with insightful look at the storied rivalry of the two neighbors. In Part I, FootKorean looks out at the history and the political and geographical context underlying the rivalry in addition to looking at the events leading up to this year’s World Cup in South Africa and how the rivalry continues to take shape with this year’s friendly matches.


Some call it the “East Asia Derby.” But football fans on the Korean peninsula don’t find it necessary to give this rivalry match such a grandiose, and yet unoriginal name. Instead, whenever there’s a competition of any kind, not just in football, against their neighbors on the other end of the East Sea, Koreans just call it Haniljeon, which simply translates to “The Korea-Japan Match.” Such simplicity is all they need to describe the magnitude of this clash against their fierce rivals. It has only been half a century since Korea played football matches against Japan under the recognition of FIFA, but many, especially the older generation, believe that defeating the Japanese is their birthright. For Koreans, competing against Japan always came and will continue to come with the national pride at stake.

Had the Japanese figure skater Asada Mao not been her rival, Kim Yu-na perhaps might not have been as big a star in Korea as she is today. The World Baseball Classic, a tournament that was evidently started by the Major League Baseball in a sole attempt to generate revenue, might not have been taken so seriously by the Korean public had it not been Suzuki Ichiro‘s comment in 2006 about wanting to make Koreans feel that they cannot beat Japan for the next 30 years.

The tension between two countries’ football cultures has been present for decades earlier in the 19th century, even before they started playing FIFA-sanctioned matches against each other. During the Japanese occupation, Kim Yong-sik, the pioneer and godfather of the sport in Korea, was one of several Korean athletes who had to represent Japan with the Hinomaru on his chest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Kim was only able to represent his motherland as the head coach after the Japanese occupation came to an end when he led Korea’s football team to its first ever major international competition at the 1948 London Olympics.

[Kim Yong-sik]

The first meeting between these two sides was held in 1954, just nine years after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended, in the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup in Switzerland. The two-legged playoff was initially proposed to be played in home-and-away format, but Korea’s then-President Rhee Syng-man was opposed to the idea of inviting the Japanese team as there was an ineffable political tension between the two countries at the time. The brutality of Japan during its occupation of the peninsula for 45 years was still deeply ingrained in the wounded hearts of Koreans, and the president’s refusal to invite Japan’s football team forced both matches to be played in Tokyo.

“If we lose to Japan, we’ll throw our bodies into the Korea Strait on our way back,” said the coach Lee Yoo-hyung before leaving to Tokyo for the two matches. Korea went on to hammer Japan 7-3 on aggregate and booked its place in the World Cup for the first time in history.

That’s how it all started — the rivalry between two East Asian neighbors. Korea’s goalkeeper Hong Duk-young said after the match, “Just the fact that our flag was flying alongside the Japanese flag must be a huge issue in Korea.”

[1954 World Cup Qualifier in Tokyo]


The rest, as they say, was history. Until 1990, Korea and Japan played 48 matches, 30 of which were won by the former. However, every time Koreans were about to be assured of their superiority, they were reminded by Japan that the nature of rivalries simply doesn’t work that way. Japan, at one point, held Korea winless for seven consecutive years from 1962 to 1969.

The first truly “heartbreaking moment” against Japan also came during this era for Korea as two sides faced off in 1967 with the qualification to the following year’s Olympics in Mexico City on the line. Korea and Japan were in Group A of the Asian qualifying rounds along with Vietnam, Lebanon, Taiwan, and the Philippines. With qualification being handed only to the group leader, it was obvious which two teams would be fighting for the top spot. Japan at the time was led by the de facto head coach Dettmar Cramer, a German who later led Bayern Munich to two consecutive European Cups in 1975 and 1976. Prior to meeting Korea in the fourth round, Japan did itself a huge favor by demolishing the Philippines 15-0. Having the lead in goal differential was crucial for obvious reasons as only the first place team would earn qualification to the Olympics. Going into the fourth round match, both teams were with three wins respectively as expected, but Japan boasted a goal differential of +21 whereas Korea, having allowed two goals to Taiwan, was only at +7. A draw would have been enough for the Japanese provided that they win their last match against Vietnam while protecting the lead on Korea in goal differential.

Thirteen minutes into the match, Japan went ahead as Miyamoto Masakatsu hit the back of the net, and found itself sitting on a two-goal cushion at half-time thanks to Sugiyama Ryuichi‘s 37th minute goal. In the second half, Korea responded by knotting the score up with two quick goals by Lee Hoi-taek and Huh Yoon-jung within the first 25 minutes, but fell behind again just a minute later as Kamamoto Kunishige put Japan back ahead.

[Lee Hoi-taek: Legend of Korean football in the 70s]

Korea made it a seesaw battle with Kim Ki-bok’s equalizer in the 80th minute, but Japan, with a significant lead in goal differential, was more than happy to settle for a draw and retain its top place in Group A whereas the Taegeuk Warriors needed to dig deep to find the winning goal. However, Korea’s hope of qualifying all but ended when Kim’s long range effort deep into stoppage time came off the cross bar. Japan went on to win its last match against Vietnam by a goal, eliminating Korea despite its 5-0 win over the Philippines. Koreans had to stay home and watch Japan winning the bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which remains as the best showing by an Asian team in the Olympics until today.

However, Korea continued to occupy the driver’s seat of this rivalry as the intensity between two teams turned up a notch in the 1970s. The respective football associations of two countries agreed to schedule matches against each other on a routine basis, further increasing the number of encounters against each other. Korea won 13 of the 20 matches played against Japan in the 1970s alone. Japan, on the other hand, won just twice. This one-sided punishment by Korea continued into the 1980s. Korea highlighted this lengthy dominance in 1985 after beating Japan to a comfortable 3-1 victory on aggregate over the two-legged playoff of the Asian qualifiers and earned a place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which was its first appearance on the big stage in 32 years.

[1985 World Cup Qualifier in Seoul]


The fiercest time of the rivalry between two countries didn’t come until the 1990s. As Japan started its preparation for launching the J.League, its talent pool started to improve drastically. By the time J.League’s inaugural season got underway in 1993, Korean fans were finally feeling that there was a shift of paradigm and that their neighbors now have a team that’s capable of posing a serious threat to their boys consistently.

Even after successfully qualifying to the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., Kim Ho, one of Korea’s greatest coaches of all time, labeled the 1-0 loss to Japan during the Asian qualifiers in Doha as the “worst moment” in his coaching career. The tension and emotions ran higher than ever prior to this match, and the winger Noh Jung-yoon, the first Korean to ply his trade in the J.League, was crucified by coach Kim and lost his place in the starting line-up after it was learned that he gave his club teammates on the Japan national team jars of kimchi as presents a few days earlier. Legendary captain Hong Myung-bo, after losing this match against Japan, publicly promised that another loss to the rivals in a match that involves him would mean that he will retire from football altogether. Fortunately for him and more importantly for his country, Korea never lost another Haniljeon when Hong was playing.

Although the Japanese fell just one minute shy of qualifying to the World Cup after allowing a last-minute goal to Iraq in the final match of the qualifying rounds, the earlier win over Korea was surely a sign of warning to their neighbors that they will no longer let the rivalry be so one-sided. But because it was Korea that earned its place at the World Cup in the end, what was called “Agony in Doha” to Japanese football fans was dubbed as “Miracle in Doha” by Koreans as Iraq’s equalizer against Japan gifted them the qualification despite the loss to their rivals earlier. The Iraqi goal-scorer Jaffar Omran Salman was later formally invited to Korea and received a hero’s treatment during his visit.

[Koreans celebrate after the announcement of Iraq's goal against Japan]

With Japan finally having established itself as a formidable foe, the East Asian neighbors met yet again in the quarter-finals of the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games. It was a rare case where both teams considered the encounter as a revenge match. Korea, despite earning the qualification, looked to get back at the rivals after losing in Doha whilst the Japanese wanted to validate the victory against their nemesis from a year ago and prove that they were the ones who deserved to be at the World Cup. Both teams were headed towards the latter end of their progress as being the perennial outsiders in world of football and were led by foreign coaches. Anatoliy Byshovets of USSR was in charge of Korea, and Japan was under the tutelage of Brazilian mastermind Paulo Roberto Falcao. The Koreans, after thrashing Nepal 11-0 with a phenomenal eight-goal performance by Hwang Sun-hong and a 2-1 win over Oman, suffered a shock loss against Kuwait in the final match of Group C, and advanced to the quarter-finals as the second place team. Second place finish in their group meant that Koreans set themselves up for a showdown against their bitter rivals who were hosting the tournament.

[Yoo Sang-chul scores against Japan in 1994 Asian Games]

It was a rainy night in Hiroshima, and the match was a fast-paced contest from the get-go as has all other matches between these two teams have been. Japan grabbed the go-ahead goal in the 30th minute when Kazuyoshi Miura knocked the ball into the net with his right foot following a headed pass by Endo Masahiro inside the box. Going into the second half down by a goal, Korea refused to let this match be the déjà vu of what happened in Doha a year ago. Just six minutes since the start of the second half, Ko Jeong-woon‘s through-ball into the box was laid off by Han Jung-guk‘s backheel, inviting Yoo Sang-chul into the play to apply the finish for his first ever international goal. Korea took the lead in the 77th minute when Hwang Sun-hong headed home a brilliant cross by Choi Dae-shik. Japan scrambled and pulled level as Masami Ihara nailed a wonder strike from 35 yards out into the top right corner, but the Koreans were not to be denied as Hwang once again was there to rise up to the occasion by drawing a penalty with just a minute left in regulation. Hwang, who retired from football in 2003 with a glossy undefeated record against Japan, scored one of his four match winning goals in Haniljeon by converting the penalty.

[Hwang Sun-hong, the Haniljeon legend]


The heightened intensity of the rivalry in the early 1990s carried on until the end of the decade, as Korea and Japan continued to produce classic matches, some of which range from the penalty shootout victory for the Blue Samurai in 1995 Dynasty Cup (now the East Asian Championship) to the pair of matches in the Asian qualifiers in 1997 for the 1998 World Cup in France where both sides exchanged emotional victories on their enemy’s home soil to qualify together for the very first time in history. It was the 1990s that truly defined this rivalry that perhaps may no longer carry the same intensity and drama, but will always stay in the hearts of the football fans in the Far East.

[Korea's celebration following Lee Min-sung's match winning goal in Tokyo (1997)]

It is indeed true that Koreans appear to be taking this rivalry more seriously than their Japanese counterparts, but the frustrating part for them is not the pressure they feel from having to beat Japan at all costs. It is rather the attitude of Japan that accuses Koreans of being obsessed with past history and their neighbors’ advice about how one should just “move on” as what happened 70 or so years ago is nothing but history now. To all Koreans, however, the painful history of Japanese occupation is not something they can or even should forget about, as it’s a predestined fate that they all have to live with. And if defeating Japan in football is what Korea considers as its revenge, then so be it, because what better way is there to get at your rivals than to use the Beautiful Game as a venue to do it? Of course, it would be another story if Koreans resorted to unsportsmanlike, shameful, and dirty tactics for the sake of winning, but the ultimate truth is, no other football rivalries in the world is as clean and yet competitive as the rivalry between these two countries.

In any case, the standard of Korean football fans has risen and beating Japan no longer carries the same level of joy as it once did. When the Korea Football Association arranged last May’s friendly in Saitama as the finale match of Korea’s preparation before the team left for South Africa this past summer, the officials who set up the fixture were put on blast by the public as general consensus among Koreans was that Japan can no longer provide a good enough test for their side ahead of a major competition.

It would be a blatant lie, however, to say that overwhelmingly outplaying Japan in a convincing 2-0 away victory wasn’t a gratifying sight for the Korean fans. Despite the thawing intensity, the rivalry will never die. What mattered so much throughout the last six decades still matters, and it will matter once again in Seoul on Oct. 12. Furthermore, should Japan win or make a deeper run than Korea in the Asian Cup this January, there won’t be many calm people in the Land of the Morning Calm.


2010 may go down in the annals of Korean footballing history as a momentous year – a year in which the men’s national team solidified its presence on the international level thanks in part to a decent World Cup showing on foreign soil; a year in which the women’s U-17 and U-19 teams both defied expectations in their respective World Cups, the former winning the entire competition outright and the latter coming in an impressive third place. And while many football fans in Korea have reason to be ebullient about these accomplishments, a substantive addition to what many feel is a country starting to hit its stride and gain momentum on the world stage, 2010 did not start out hunky dory. In fact, few would have likely predicted the relative success of Team Korea given the circumstances which the team found itself during the infancy of the year…


In Korea, a volatile public, expectant and anxious, was poised to pounce on a loss to Japan.

Just a mere week before in Tokyo, media outlets and fans alike had sung the praises of the national team in its demolition job of group punching bags Hong Kong. A patchwork national side had put the minnows to the sword in a five-goal glut and looked all but ready for a repeat of another EAFF title. But that exuberance was cut painfully short. China, a side that was yet to beat Korea in 27 meetings at full international and Olympic level, humbled a woefully inadequate and amateurish Korea side three days later, not only managing to put three in the net but also exposing each and every layer of the Korean team from defense to attack. A bewildered Huh Jung-moo looked on as his shell-shocked team left the pitch in tatters.

Back in Korea, the reaction was swift and merciless, crucifying player and coach alike in a firestorm of diatribes, editorials and criticism. Papers implored that Huh be removed, beseeched the Korean Football Association (KFA) for a competent alternative and bemoaned the forthcoming match with Japan, a match that now seemed all the more ominous in the pall of the Chinese defeat. For some, a loss to Japan was even a palatable result — a loss would have served as justification for their longstanding trepidation of having a homegrown manager and losing to their traditional rivals would not only conveniently compound all the uncertainties regarding the national team but would also serve as the cruelest analgesic for the malaise surrounding the team’s disconcertingly poor performances. But no one needed to explain this to the management. Huh Jung-moo knew it. The coaches knew it. The KFA knew it. The Japan match would prove to be the ultimate litmus test for a manager on the cusp; whose tactical prowess was always being second-guessed, whose strategic nous continually questioned.

And, as one might have predicted given the competitive nature of past encounters, a forgettable first half hour rife with fouls was rudely interrupted by a penalty to Japan — Kang Min-soo, Suwon’s ungainly centerback, dragging an incensed Tulio to the ground in the box.  As Endo converted his spot-kick with aplomb, one could feel the noose already beginning to tighten around Huh’s neck.  But in a show of grit and determination that has typified the Korean sides of yesteryear but seemed all the more absent as of late, the men in red staged an entertaining comeback courtesy of Hongik University standout Kim Bo-kyung.  It was the left-footed youngster who cut into the penalty area and drew a penalty from dismayed wingback Uchida Atsuto to set up Korea’s equalizer and it was Kim again who secured Korea’s timely victory with an assist on the third goal – a beautiful run on the touchline including a nutmeg of Inamoto Junichi, a skip past Uchida and a well-played one-two with Pohang midfielder Kim Jae-sung. And while both teams lost a player apiece to red cards (Kim Jung-woo for a second card following a poor tackle and Tulio for kicking out at Kang Min-soo), the Pyrrhic nature of the win certainly did not take away from what was a combative display in Tokyo, a victory that ultimately served to galvanize both public opinion and team spirit. Huh’s seat had cooled for the time being.

[Korea beats Japan 3-1 in the EAFF Championship]


Three months later and the footballing landscape in Korea had changed. Gone were the pockmarks of pessimism and uncertainty; the scenery had been smoothed over considerably by impressive two-nil wins over the Ivory Coast and Ecuador, ushering in an era of good feelings and a wave of enthusiasm that helped cast off the team from the peninsula and towards South Africa. As fate should have it, however, the second meeting between the two rivals was prefaced with a remarkable reversal in fortunes of the managerial counterparts. While Huh Jung-moo was the recipient of the all-important vote of confidence from his critics, the hapless Okada Takeshi seemed to be the inevitable benefactor of the kiss of death.  Most notably, the previously obdurate defense of Okada by the JFA seemed to be quickly eroding, bombarded with vociferous fans and critics venting their frustration. A three-nil defeat to Serbia was met with Japanese boos, an eerily rare sign of displeasure from normally unwaveringly supportive fans and what must have sounded very much like the death knell of Okada’s tenure. As Goal.com Asia editor John Duerden noted at the time: “By the end [of the Serbia match], journalists at the press box at the Nagai Stadium were reduced to bitter laughter. Even the genial and diplomatic Junji Ogura, the vice-president of the Japan FA, couldn’t hide his disappointment…” Consequently, the stakes of the match had been raised…at least for one side. Japan, faced with the prospect of losing to Korea twice on home ground within the span of four months, could not afford to lose again. Surely if Japan were to lose Okada would be cast asunder from the national stage and the Blue Samurai thrown into disarray with mere weeks before the tournament.  Japan, for the sake of its World Cup, simply could not afford to lose. Or could it?

A packed Saitama Stadium must have had similar thoughts in the fifth minute of the match as Park Ji-sung single-handedly waltzed through Japan’s defense and unleashed a venomous shot that took a slightly fortuitous bounce over Narazaki Seigo’s outstretched palm and into the net.  How apropos was it, then, that Korea’s Prodigal Son, having earlier plied his trade in the Land of the Rising Sun, would strike that disheartening blow? The captain stared down the Japanese Ultras as he tore away to celebrate, an uncharacteristic show of arrogance from a man who seemed intent on sending a clear message of Korea’s superiority to all of Honshū.  If the first Korea-Japan encounter of 2010 fell a little short of the glamour of the East Asian rivalry in its heyday, the second Korea-Japan encounter certainly looked to have all the makings of an epic encounter – off-pitch managerial troubles, star players present, and an apparently angry Park Ji-sung. Although there were concerns from both camps regarding the mutual need to protect players from injury in anticipation of the World Cup, early signs pointed to a barnstorming encounter.  A clearly perturbed Japan, marshaled by the impressively astute and blonde Honda Keisuke, proceeded to fight back, subsequently dominating possession in the first half but having only a handful of real chances — Okubo Yoshito firing wide on about the twenty minute mark.  The introduction of Catania youngster Morimoto Takayuki in the second half instilled more immediacy and edge to the Japanese attack and unsurprisingly it was the talented forward who had the best chances for Japan to restore parity, his ferocious effort saved with less than fifteen minutes remaining in the match.  However, while Japan attempted to impose their play on the Korean defense, it was the Red Devils offense that seemed closer to converting again, Kim Bo-kyung happy to relive his tormenting of the Japanese defense with a clever backheel to Kim Nam-il who forced an acrobatic save out of Narazaki. Korea’s endeavors eventually bore fruit (again involving Kim Bo-kyung) when Park Ju-young stepped up to convert his own penalty, sending the huge red pockets of support into an ecstatic ebb and flow in stark contrast to a stoic and static blue background.  The strident chorus of boos that echoed around the stadium were as clear as the writing on the wall for Okada and Co: Korea had just beaten Japan by another two-goal margin on home territory for the second time in four months. Okada must go.

[Korea repeats an away victory against Japan, 2-0]


But Okada (and Huh) went to South Africa and the World Cup came and went.

Korea and Japan both progressed to the round of 16, surprising a few and converting many along the way, and put in a battling display in going out. A decent showing in South Africa for both teams meant that the East Asian juggernauts bolstered their reputation as perennial dark-horses on the world stage and were all that much closer to bridging the gap between the footballing have and have-nots, especially as far as the rest of the world was concerned. The Honda Keisukes and the Lee Chung-yongs broke into mainstream footballing punditry, no longer referred to as solely commercial weapons to be wielded by eager clubs during summer tours, but as a new, more menacing generation of East Asian Talent – technically-gifted players as adept at embarrassing their Western counterparts with tricks and flicks as much as they are capable in throwing off stereotypes of inability, frailty, and ineptitude. It was on South African soil that this generation, eased into Europe from the sweat of the brow of their pioneering predecessors (The Nakatas and Parks of legend), was blooded and became known to the rest of the world.

A new generation of players abroad led by Park Ji-sung

[A new generation of Korean players abroad led by Park Ji-sung]

And as the luminous summer joy of the World Cup has smoldered and died in the gales of autumn, the ashes have given rise to the phoenix of generational transition, a changing of the guard that heralds a brave new world for Korea.  It seems only appropriate then that this forthcoming change should be highlighted by a third and final match this year between the regional rivals, this time in Seoul.  While Korea has an eye towards testing stratagems for the Asian Cup in January, notably Cho Kwang-rae’s quick-passing 3-4-2-1 formation, the match also affords Korea a unique and precious primer for the Asian Cup, a chance to throw in some of the more inexperienced players and have them habituate in the limelight of a regional rivalry. And while winning is likely to play second fiddle to tactical tinkering, both the players and staff will know that even  an altered meaning of the match will not diminish the tradition of a longstanding rivalry that pervades it.

by Steve (ganzi.han@footkorean.net) & Woongsoo (ra@footkorean.net)

Please stay tuned for player and team previews in Part II…

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  1. I know it’s unhealthy to obsess over beating Japan (in anything and everything), but still… damn it feels so good afterwards.

    Btw, I loved this part: “The captain stared down the Japanese Ultras as he tore away to celebrate, an uncharacteristic show of arrogance from a man who seemed intent on sending a clear message of Korea’s superiority to all of Honshū.”

    The goal itself was great, but that gesture/celebration is what gave me goosebumps. That is why PJS is a great captain. I hope all our kids watching our captain that night saw what it means to win a haniljeon.

    Btw, another great article guys! And another special thanks for reminding us why Hong MB was a legendary captain.

    • Exactly, that celebration was mythic. That look to the japanese public… that was a strong message.
      I agree, the celebration was even more joyful than the goal itself.

  2. Archildo /

    Good stuff guys, an excellent read.

  3. kimchipride /

    Great info. Very insightful and very much appreciated for the work you guys do.

  4. Woongsoo /

    To Joe, Archildo, and kimchipride:

    We at FootKorean are definitely appreciate of fans and readers like yourselves. Thanks so much for reading and leaving comments. We’ll continue to put out new and interesting material.

  5. Yohan /

    With the match 4 days to go this read has gotten my blood pumping. Can’t wait for the game. I actually visit the site atleast once a day lol. No korean tv in the USA.

  6. When Captain Park showed that “uncharacteristic” arrogance, it just reaffirmed how much he means to our National Team. As I was reading this article, it kind of reminded me of how resilient we are as a nation and surely, maybe in about 5 decades, we should not only be the dark horse of the WC competition, but serious contenders.

    Anyway, great article Steve/WS.

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