While Japan was considering imposing sanctions on North Korea, they found time to have a game of football, writes Justin McCurry

Naive idealists who believe sport and politics shouldn’t mix had best ignore the Asian qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup – that is if they weren’t already. When North Korea played Japan last month in their opening group qualifier, it wasn’t just the prospect of upsetting the best side in Asia on home turf that motivated them. It was also the thought of putting one over a bitter historical enemy.

But it wasn’t to be. Japan emerged 2-1 victors after an inept display that ended with an injury-time winner from Gamba Osaka forward Masashi Oguro. But if the luck of the Japanese under Zico was familiar, everything else about the match was extraordinary.

Just as the North Korea players arrived from their blustery training camp on a Chinese island, Japanese politicians were considering imposing sanctions against the country to force it to come clean about the fates of several Japanese citizens its agents abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, allowed five abductees to return to Japan in 2001, but insists that the rest had died. One of them, Megumi Yokota, a 14-year-old girl when she was snatched on her way home from school in 1978, had reportedly committed sui­cide in a mental hospital. North Korea returned her ashes weeks before the match, only DNA tests in Japan showed they weren’t hers. Almost to a man and woman, the Japanese were outraged.

Yet the dislike is mutual. Koreans of North and South have never forgiven Japan for its brutal colonisation of their peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and the use of forced Korean labour in Japanese factories and mines before and during the Second World War. Many of them stayed on when the war ended, growing into a 600,000-strong community, a quarter of which is loyal to the North.

It was hardly surprising, then, that Saitama Stadium looked less like the friendly theatre of sportsmanship and good behaviour seen at the 2002 World Cup – when it staged England v Sweden – and more like an Old Firm match in the wake of a terrorist atrocity in Northern Ireland. The 5,000 North Korean fans – all ethnic Korean residents of Japan– were given a police escort to the stadium. Inside, they were separated from the 55,000 Japanese supporters by rows of empty seats and thousands of police and security guards.

Their heroes, meanwhile, were guarded around the clock from possible attacks by right-wing extremists. They spent most of the two days before the match confined to quarters – not a huge ordeal, perhaps, for a team made up mostly of soldiers – under strict instructions not to watch television.

The Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, called for sportsmanship to win the day, while his spokes­man, Hiroyuki Hosoda, angled for part-time work as a pundit: “In the world of sports, there are always winners and losers.” For a while it seemed that Mr Koizumi’s words would go unheeded. The North Korea players were roundly booed when they emerged to warm up and pre-match chanting by their fans was drowned out by whistling from the “Ultra Nippon” at the other end of the pitch.

But by the time the teams took to the pitch the Japanese, aware that the TV cameras had been switched on, were in more generous mood. They stood respectfully for the ear- splitting North Korean national anthem, then broke out into applause when it ended. Ninety minutes later, magnanimity had turned to relief, particularly on the home side’s bench. Had the North Korea goalkeeper played as well as his team-mates and not given Oguro his chance with a weak punch from a cross two minutes into injury time, Zico might be spending more time on holiday in Brazil than he does already.

As the countries prepare for the return match, in front of 60,000 fans at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the political temperature is certain to rise again. It won’t help that North Korea has just declared itself a nuclear power or that calls for sanctions grow by the day in Japan.

But among Japan’s football fans and, one would hope, its players, there is a grudging respect for the North Koreans. Far from being war by proxy, last month’s match may have brought the countries’ peoples closer together. An Yong Hak, one of two North Koreans who play in the J-League, proved an eloquent and patient ambassador, both for the country of his birth (Japan) and that of his ancestry (North Korea) in endless TV interviews before and after the game.

The famously secretive dynastic republic may even be about to open its doors slightly to followers of the old enemy. Officials in Pyongyang are considering requests to allow several hundred Japanese supporters to make the trip for the return leg on June 8. As Japan-North Korea relations go, this is progress. Just don’t expect the home supporters to applaud the Japanese national anthem.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month

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