Past conflicts remembered

9 August ~ The fifth edition of the EAFF East Asian Cup was held in South Korea in July and ended in political controversy. The tournament involved regular participants Japan, China and debutants Australia, who just edged out North Korea in the preliminaries. The participating nations were unable to call up their players based in Europe, as the competition is not recognised by FIFA. The hosts, under the guidance of new manager Hong Myung-Bo, were held to two goalless draws against Australia and China. However, goals came in abundance for Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan, who, after a 3-3 draw with China, defeated Australia 3-2.

South Korea and Japan then faced each other on July 28, watched by 47,258 in the Jamsil Olympic Stadium, which had not staged an international football match since 2000. This used to be the favoured venue of the Korean team and hosted a number of classic encounters between the two rivals until the Seoul World Cup stadium opened.

As the national anthems were played, one of the Japanese fans was spotted waving what they call the Rising Sun flag, which has 16 "sun rays" added to the regular design of a red disc on a white background. For the Japanese, this is merely a military emblem but Koreans consider it the wartime flag and just as offensive as the swastika. One of the stewards in the stadium quickly confiscated the flag, but the home crowd had been riled.

In fact, the Red Devils, South Korea’s official supporters’ group who position themselves behind the goal, had themselves prepared three banners beforehand, ignoring a warning from the Korea Football Association. One of them read “For a nation that forgets its history, there is no future”, while the other two were giant paintings of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and An Jung-Geun. The former was a naval commander who famously defeated the invading Japanese navy in the 1590s while the latter a Korean independence activist who assassinated a former Japanese prime minister Ito Hirobumi.

The Korean supporters finally unfurled their banners, only for a KFA official to intervene and ask for them to be removed; the banners were eventually taken down during the half-time interval, with a very entertaining game tied at 1-1. The Red Devils, who tend to initiate the cheering that the rest of the crowd pick on, then refused to cheer on their team, opting instead for complete silence.

With the home side let down by poor finishing the match seemed destined to end in a draw. Then, in stoppage time, South Korean keeper Jung Sung-Ryong parried a shot into the path of midfielder Yoichiro Kakitani who scored. Japan’s first victory in Korea in eight years also won them the competition. It was a dramatic end to an eventful game, but the headlines focused on the Rising Sun flag and the Korean fans’ response to it.

The KFA released an official statement after the match, saying that the home fans were “provoked by the Rising Sun flag”. However, from the moment the Red Devils walked into the stands with those hugely political messages, their intentions were clear – they were ready to produce their banners at any time.

This is not to absolve the Japanese fan of blame but there is a big difference between the actions of one individual and that of an organised, official group. In fact, an Ultra Nippon representative – the Red Devils’ Japanese counterparts – has said that they were completely unaware of the Rising Sun flag’s presence in the stadium, which is quite believable considering the Japanese fan in question was sat in the upper tier. Ultra Nippon also showed their gratitude for South Korean help during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 with their own banner, written in Korean, at the end of the game.

The Korean supporters deliberately crossed the line and were partly to blame for the team’s defeat, because after all, a supporter’s job in the stadium is to “support’ his team – they got their priorities mixed up. Yeon Sik Yoo

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