The final UFWC title match of 2011 sees long-standing champions Japan travel to North Korea in one of the toughest tests of their reign. Japan have been champions for 16 games, since beating Argentina back in October 2010. Back-to-back high-scoring wins over Tajikistan (8-0 and 4-0) were impressive, but in truth far too easy for the Blue Samurai. This trip to North Korea should test the champions to their limits.
The latest victory over Tajikistan means that Japan have already achieved passage to the next stage of World Cup qualifiers. This match, also a WC qualifier, therefore has less significance. However, to relax or shift down a gear could be catastrophic in terms of their reign as unofficial football world champions. North Korea have already been eliminated from World Cup qualifying, so it can be argued that they have nothing to play for. But a history of antagonism between the two nations suggests that won’t be the case, and the North Koreans will no doubt be very keen to relieve their visitors of the UFWC title.
Japan only just managed to defeat North Korea, in Japan, in the last match between the two sides on 2 September. That game, in Saitama, saw Japan enjoy the bulk of the possession without managing to capitalise in terms of goals – until the 94nd minute, when Maya Yoshida scored with a last-gasp header from a corner kick. Japan had other chances to score, but looked fairly toothless up front. That problem seems to have been eradicated, if Japan’s 12 goals in the last two matches are anything to go by. But North Korea proved in the last match between the two that they are pretty solid at the back, and they too had chances to score. It’s unlikely to be an easy match for the Blue Samurai.
This is the first time in 22 years that Japan have played in North Korea. The Koreans won 2-0 back in 1989. A subsequent match, set to be played in Pyongyang in 2005, was moved to a neutral venue in Thailand due to security concerns. Political relations between the two nations remain extremely strained. Only around 150 Blue Samurai fans will travel to Pyongyang, and they have been warned not to stray from their official party, and not to carry Japanese flags, banners or drums. The venue, the Kim Il Sung Stadium, is named after an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter. To further unsettle the Japanese, the stadium has a plastic pitch, which few of the visiting players will appreciate.
The game against Japan in September was North Korea’s third UFWC title match, and they’ve yet to win any of them. The nation did qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but lost all three group matches. Since then, there have been mixed fortunes, beating the likes of beaten Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but losing to China, Iran and Iraq. North Korea’s last two matches were against Uzbekistan, and both were lost 1-0.
The North Korean squad includes three players who play their club football in Japan. Midfielders Ryang Yong-Gi and An Yong-Hak play for Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa Reysol respectively, and defender Kim Song-Gi plays for Cerezo Osaka. And the star of the squad is Japanese-born striker Jong Tae-Se, who plays in Germany for VfL Bochum. Nicknamed “the People’s Rooney”, and known as Chong Tese in Japan and Germany, he was born in Japan to South Korean parents, yet holds a North Korean passport. 27-year-old Jong scored 10 in 25 games in Bundesliga 2 last season, and has scored 3 in 9 so far this season. He was involved in much of North Korea’s best play in the previous match against Japan, and was a standout performer alongside goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk.
If you’d like to read more about Jong Tae-se and the often-secretive world of North Korean football, we covered the story in more depth in a previous post
Japan, who have been training in China at the Beijing National Stadium, are likely to line up with a very similar team to the one that comfortably beat Tajikistan. Striker Mike Havenaar was withdrawn early in the second half of that match, and may not start in Pyongyang. Alberto Zaccheroni may also take the opportunity to bring some fringe plarers into the team. But as for qualms that Japan may not take this match entirely seriously, putting their UFWC title on the line, the players seem focussed on getting a good result. Quoted in the Japan Times, defender Atsuto Uchida said, “We’ve got a game to play and as long as we’re playing, I have no intension of losing.”
Kick-off is 1600 local time, which is 0700 GMT. We’ll have a full match report here within minutes of the final whistle, and you can get live coverage via our Twitter feed @UFWC_Football.