Yokohama – Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu had plenty to crow about on Thursday night after his team’s dominant 3-0 win over South Korea.
Instead, the majority of his post-match news conference was dedicated to the circumstances under which the match was held, and the inspiration he hoped his Samurai Blue squad would bring to a Japanese public that continues to live under restrictions imposed as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
That local media only offered one question to Moriyasu regarding the Japan-South Korea rivalry reflects a potential lowering of temperatures for what has long been considered one of Asia’s most intense matchups.
“It was the first (Japan-South Korea) game since 2011 and I’m happy we won, but the team has changed since then,” Moriyasu said. “Despite the difficult preparations, the players did their best to bring happiness and energy to the people of Japan, and more than anything I’m happy that they put in the hard work and won.”
Since the two countries first met in a 1954 FIFA World Cup qualifier — less than a decade after the Korean Peninsula was freed from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II — matches between the two countries have been among the most intense the continent has to offer.
That relationship means that nothing is off the table when a nikkansen, as such games are known locally, comes around, whether it’s aggressive play on the pitch or politically tinged banners in the stands.
The most recent nikkansen of significant consequence did not, in fact, feature full senior sides, but rather under-23 teams contending for the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Seven players received yellow cards during the game, but it is perhaps best remembered for the post-game conduct of midfielder Park Jong-woo, who was barred from the medal ceremony after holding up a fan’s sign that read “Dokdo is our land” — a reference to the Takeshima islets controlled by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo.
“I regret losing to South Korea way more than I did losing to Mexico in the semifinals. Personally, losing to them at the Olympics was incredibly frustrating, and I never wanted to lose to them again,” Samurai Blue captain Maya Yoshida said ahead of Thursday’s game.
“Of course any national team game is important, but playing against South Korea is more important. It’s a game you absolutely have to win.”
Besides that game in Cardiff, the two countries have rarely clashed with anything significant at stake, with even the East Asian sub-regional championships only being contested by players from local leagues. Prior to Thursday, their full squads had not met since the August 2011 friendly in Sapporo and a semifinal in that year’s Asian Cup. The last nikkansen to serve as a World Cup qualifier came in 1997, leading some — including Yoshida — to voice concerns that younger Japanese players are less conscious of the rivalry’s significance.
“We haven’t played South Korea for a while, and I was probably of the last generation of players who were really taught about the importance of the rivalry by the previous generation,” Yoshida said. “I’m concerned that because it’s been 10 years, we haven’t been able to share that with the generation below us.
“Back then they said you had to take the Korean players head-on, even if you’d break your leg or wreck your body. I don’t know if that’s something you can tell the younger generations. But what I absolutely want them to understand is that this is the most important match they will play in their career.”
Yoshida’s words clearly struck a chord on Thursday as Japan dominated a surprisingly pedestrian South Korean squad missing many of its top Europe-based players, including Tottenham star Son Hyun-min, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“South Korea has a lot of world-class stars, but they weren’t here today,” Moriyasu said. “Next time we play them we’ll have to be prepared for a different team.”
While there were no yellow cards shown — a rarity for a nikkansen — tensions rose during the second half as South Korea struggled to find a way back into the game.
One incident in particular saw defender Takehiro Tomiyasu temporarily leave the pitch with a bloody mouth after taking an elbow to the face from South Korean winger Lee Dong-jun.
But for the most part it was Japan drawing blood, with national team debutant Miki Yamane as well as the Bundesliga duo of Daichi Kamada and Wataru Endo putting their names on the scoresheet in front of 8,356 fans.
“Everyone coming back from Europe felt slow in training. I couldn’t move my body and the domestic-based players were running circles around me,” Kamada said. “But once the match started everyone switched on and things went really well.”
While the mood in the Japan camp was jubilant, South Korean players likely faced a chilly atmosphere upon their return from Nissan Stadium.
“A retired Korean player once told me that it’s almost an unwritten rule for the players that a team dinner after losing to Japan must take place in absolute silence,” Korean soccer journalist Steve Han told From the Spot. “There’s going to be some backlash (after this result).”
While Han says that avid soccer fans in South Korea may now see Iran as the country’s main foil — just as the Samurai Blue may view Australia’s Socceroos after being grouped together in three straight World Cup qualifying cycles — he believes there’s still hope for the 57-year rivalry between the two nations to continue.
“Unlike their political counterparts, I feel like the football rivalry between the two countries has always been a healthy one,” Han said. “It would certainly be helpful to both teams, in my opinion, if it’s held annually or biennially with both teams calling up their ‘A’ squads. More of these games would be fun.”
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