x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rivalry between South Korea and Japan is still fierce

Footballing rivalry between the two Asian powerhouses South Korea and Japan go back a long way, and their 1954 clash was no laughing matter.

In general, it can help the promoter of a sporting event if one side will care so much that it vows to hurl itself into a large body of water if it loses, or if a nation's president will recommend that the players and surely the manager quickly hurl themselves into a large body of water if they lose.

Human nature being as it is, that kind of lead-up simply stirs interest.

Alas, most sporting events cannot boast this kind of gravitas, so the Asian Cup will have to settle for mere hugeness when South Korea oppose Japan today in a rivalrous semi-final.

It will have to settle for large swaths of 127 million Japanese and 49 million Koreans quivering past midnight six time zones east. It will have to settle for Doha press conferences answering the philosophical question: how many cameras can humanity cram into a single room?

That's not bad, but then, absolutely nobody on the Korean side, not manager Cho Kwang-Rae, not 21-year-old wunderkind Koo Ja-cheol with his four goals here, not any of the absurdly youthful comers such as Yoon Bit-garam whose 105th-minute blast beat Iran, and not Manchester United employee Park Ji-sung approaching his 100th national cap … Nobody has said anything about launching himself into turbulent water upon defeat.

The world has grown so rational, hasn't it?

Now, back in March 1954, not so long after Japanese occupation finally ended, well now, there was some urgency.

Not only did Rhee Syngman, the South Korea president, refuse to allow either of the 1954 World Cup qualifying matches with Japan to transpire in Seoul, but according to the Korea Times quoting a history by Park Song-wu, he recommended that if his countrymen lost over in Tokyo, they could "drown themselves in the East Sea".

According to the Japanese-language Asahi Shimbun, Rhee said they could use the "Sea of Genkai."

According to Fifa, Rhee suggested the players should try "throwing yourselves in the ocean," which would make the practice a tad more difficult as the players would have to go the other way geographically to access an ocean.

And according to football historians at the 21st-century blogs Footkorean and Rising Sun News, twas Lee Yoo-Hyung, the legendary Korean manager, who pledged that if defeat came, players and manager and presumably assistants plus maybe even locker-room towel attendants would jump "into the Korea Strait on our way back".

Obviously, with the muddled lens of translated history somehow identifying so many bodies of water into which Korean players might have jumped, it comes as such relief to learn that South Korea triumphed.

They answered an early Japan goal in Tokyo with a 5-1 pasting, then drew a second Tokyo bout 2-2 to become the first Asian side in a World Cup, where in Switzerland they would incur losses of 9-0 to Hungary and 7-0 to Turkey.

From that frailty, both South Korea and Japan have crested steadily to a vista where their dual knockout-stage presence in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa came as routine.

They have boosted each other. They even got around to co-staging a World Cup in 2002.

Even if their rivalry has burned all along - most hilariously in 1994 when Iraq nudged Japan out of World Cup qualifying at the brink with Jaffar Omran Salman's early-in-stoppage-time goal, and Japanese dubbed it "the Agony in Doha," and South Koreans trumpeted it "the Miracle in Doha" - the tussle has a standard sound now.

Historians sometimes cannot agree on the names of the bodies of water - have you ever heard of such a thing? - but overall the forecast calls for dryness.

Alberto Zaccheroni, the new-on the-scene Japan manager, touts the teams' attacking similarities and promises a taut contest. Cho agrees with Zaccheroni. Makoto Hasesbe, the Japan captain, said: "I think I don't need to speak about this a lot because you know the relationship and history." Koo said "it is just a game that we have to go through" to reach the final. In what passes for pre-match melodrama, Zaccheroni cautions against excessive motivation because excess mars nerve endings. "And I would like to control and adjust that," he said.

It does promise to be a fast, captivating scrap, an intense late afternoon in Qatar, a waking night on both sides of the Korea Strait or the Tsushima Strait or the Sea of Japan or the East Sea or whatever, and a meaty discussion while feigning productivity on Wednesday morning.

It just lacks a few vows, that's all. Maybe, to birth some sort of ritual, the winners could go on down to Doha's Corniche and simply go swimming.



5.25pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1, Al Jazeera Sports +4, +5 & +10