A rivalry that transcends competitionAt 7 p.m. on April 16, a Wednesday, the streets of Korea will be empty. The nation will come to a standstill, like an office during lunch hour. Even the ladies of the night at Cheongnyangni will not be around.
In homes and businesses all across the peninsula, television sets will be on. War or no war in the Middle East, on that particular day most of Korea could care less.
Why? Because Korea will be staging a friendly soccer match against neighboring Japan.
Since March 1954 the two countries’ teams have squared off on the peninsula, in Japan or in other parts of the world in exhibition matches like this one or in qualifying matches for the Olympics, Asian Games and World Cup. In all, the two countries have met 64 times.
So, what’s the tally?
In a span of almost half a century, Korea has lost just 10 matches while winning 37 and drawing 17. When you consider the Seoul factor, the dominance is even greater: out of the 17 matches played in Korea, only two were losses and another two ended as draws.
I’m hard pressed to recall such a supremacy as this in any other sport.
Japan would love to win next month, for a change, but the home turf domination makes that as likely as Nicole Kidman having trouble getting a date on a Saturday night.
When playing Japan, Korea has no excuse for losing and there surely is no reason not to win. Much of that mind-set has to do with the uncomfortable history between the two countries.
Japan is coached by the Brazilian Zico Arthur Antunes Coimbra ― better known simply as “Zico.” It seems that Zico has figured out a psychological angle for a match between these two countries; he announced Sunday that he will only use players from Japan’s J-League. That means players now overseas, like Hidetoshi Nakata of Italy’s Parma or Junichi Inamoto in the English Premier League, won’t see any action.
However, the new head coach said that the overseas talent will be on the pitch in matches against Uruguay and the United States. Here’s the reason for this selective behavior: Zico wants to give as many players as possible an opportunity. Beneath this move is this careful calculation: If Zico loses with a fully manned team, he’ll suffer unbearable flak.
Hopes are high all across Japan ― which made it to the final eight in last year’s World Cup ― and a loss would surely undermine Zico’s credibility.
This case illustrates the importance of soccer’s mental strategy. The Korean players could fall into the trap of treating far too lightly a match against a country they have long had the upper hand over.
Personally, I think that Japan’s skill level is on par with Korea’s, and even without certain Japanese players from abroad showing up, Japan still has an even chance of winning.
It is true that Japan’s national team performers have a certain fear embedded in them whenever they face the Koreans. But considering Japan’s pool of talent, it is time to forget the past and start with a clean slate.
What Japan definitely won’t have on the night of April 16 is a home field advantage.
by Brian Lee
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