LONDON – If Japan wants to win its first medal in men’s soccer in 44 years, it will have to dig deep on Friday in Cardiff — really deep.
Japan’s opponent in the bronze-medal match has turned out to be none other than South Korea, which lost to Brazil 3-0 in its semifinal after Takashi Sekizuka’s side was defeated 3-1 by Mexico.
Japan and Korea have slugged it out over decades, but never at the Olympic Games. They last met in a friendly last year in Sapporo, where the hosts won 3-0 — a rare one-sided game between the two continental rivals.
Friday’s match, however, should be anything but one-sided with a medal, pride and revenge at stake for Korea.
The Koreans will not only be looking to avenge the loss in Sapporo, but also a semifinal defeat on penalties to Japan at the Asian Cup in January 2011.
The Europe-based trio of Park Chu Young (Arsenal), Koo Ja Cheol (Augsburg) and Ki Sung Yueng (Celtic) all play for the senior side and should prove to be a tough test for the Japanese defense.
Coach Hong Myung Bo used to punish Japan during his playing days as a tenacious libero and will be looking to inflict more pain from the dugout through his charges.
Hong, who spent part of his career in the J. League with Bellmare Hiratsuka and Kashiwa Reysol, also has five players playing their club soccer in Japan and will have first-hand knowledge of Sekizuka’s men.
“Japan are a country who play with a lot of short passes and have two very good players in attack,” said Hong, the four-time World Cup defender.
“We know a lot about them, but the most important thing is how the players recover for the match. When we play them we have to control the midfield.
“It is good that we have a lot of players in the J. League, and that should really help us to prepare. I want to finish the tournament with a good result.”
The Korean players appear to think the battle is already won.
“We’re not feeling too bad because we are going to win the bronze medal,” defender Kim Young Gwon, who played for the J. League’s Omiya Ardija until last month, said after the Brazil game.
Japan’s loss to Mexico — its first at this Olympics as it also conceded for the first time — left a bitter taste as the deciding goal came from the poor decision-making of keeper Shuichi Gonda.
Sekizuka said fatigue prevented his team from performing the way it had through the quarterfinal win over Egypt in reaching the Olympic semifinals for the first time since Mexico 1968.
Victory over Mexico would have sent Japan to its first final at the Summer Games, giving these players their own place in Japanese soccer history.
The win clearly devastated the team as they did not speak to journalists on Thursday for the first time since arriving in England in mid-July.
Whether they can move on from defeat and regroup to face a confident Korean team remains to be seen. But these Japanese players defied the odds and expectations to advance as far as they have, and ruling now wouldn’t seem like a smart bet.
“We need to pick ourselves up and get on with it,” forward Yuki Otsu said after the Mexico game. “Anyone on our team who can’t do that, we don’t need.”