Samurai Blue vs Taeguk Warriors: Rivalry & Reconciliation

Samurai Blue vs Taeguk Warriors: Rivalry & Reconciliation

Asian football expert John Duerden takes an in-depth look at a 70-year arc of history that has seen the fierce rivalry between these two nations expressed through football and the World Cup.

June 2018

Japan and South Korea have had a good few World Cup battles over the years without ever meeting in the tournament itself. It would be an explosive fixture. Even low-key games between the two can provide high-level controversy.

Take the 2013 East Asian Cup clash. Both teams fielded experimental line-ups a year out from the World Cup with the overseas-based stars all absent. Played not in Seoul’s World Cup Stadium but in the old Olympic Stadium on the south bank of the mighty Han River in the shadow of the Gangnam skyscrapers, there was something of an old-school feel to the clash, though the Lotte World Tower — rapidly rising next door to become the fifth-tallest building in the world by its 2016 completion — provided a stark reminder that times were changing.

History was the theme of the game. Japanese fans had smuggled Rising Sun flags into the away end, aware of the reaction it would cause to the citizens that now live in the country above which it fluttered from 1910 to 1945, a period of brutal colonisation. At the other end, the home fans held a larger portrait of an independence fighter (he is not seen that way in Japan) who had assassinated a high-profile Japanese official in 1909. The main Korean supporters group, the Red Devils, also unfurled a banner that read: “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” Outraged that their handiwork was confiscated at the end of the first half, they sat down in silence for the rest of the game in protest.

Just a normal clash then. The rivalry between these two nations is the biggest and bitterest in Asia. Everything is there: the history between the two countries, the geographical proximity, the similar-but-different cultures and the fact that for much of modern history in Asian football, they have been two leading powers of the continent. There are other rivalries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore, and North Korea and South Korea, but while they have their own feelings and foibles, they do not quite tick all the boxes. Nippon and Hanguk have been doing that for quite some time.

“President Syngman Rhee of South Korea had been tortured by the Japanese, and when stressed still blew on his fingers that had been burnt years before. He was not about to have his tormentors return to Seoul.”

There were some famous cup games between Seoul, Pyongyang and Tokyo in the colonisation period, but independence in 1945 gave the Koreans a first chance for their own national team. The first game was a warm-up en route to the London Olympics in Hong Kong in 1948: a 5-1 win over a combined team of Chinese and Hong Kong players. The Olympics started well with a 5-3 win over Mexico, but a 12-0 loss to Sweden was, well, an eye-opening thrashing. 

After the Japanese left Korea in August 1945, the United States took over the running of the South while the USSR assumed control in the North. This division became official in 1948 and has remained so ever since. The northern invasion of the South in June 1950 not only ended any thoughts of football for some time, it very nearly spelt the end of South Korea with only a daring landing behind enemy lines at Seoul’s port city of Incheon (through which British sailors had introduced the game of football in 1882) saving the day and stopping the rout. After three years of fierce fighting, a truce was called in June 1953 with the borders pretty much where they had been when it all kicked off.

In the meantime Japan, which unlike China was not involved in the fighting, was rebuilding after the end of the Second World War. Given the geopolitical situation and the burgeoning Cold War, the United States as occupying power was keen to see a democratic Japan stabilise and then grow. The Korean War helped as supplies from the US came through the Land of the Rising Sun before being shipped to the Land of the Rising Calm, boosting the Japanese economy. This did not go unnoticed on the other side of the East Sea / Sea of Japan (the two countries do not agree on the name for the body of water that separates them).

Despite the ravages of war, both Japan and South Korea entered qualification for the 1954 World Cup to be held in Switzerland, as did the Republic of China, but the team that was to become known as Taiwan (and then officially as Chinese Taipei in FIFA and Olympic parlance) withdrew. That left a two-legged match-up between the two East Asian rivals who had been colonised and coloniser just nine years earlier.

President Syngman Rhee of South Korea (in office 1948-60) had been tortured by the Japanese, and when stressed still blew on his fingers that had been burnt years before. He was not about to have his tormentors return to Seoul. So it came to pass that both games were played in Tokyo on 7 and 14 March 1954. It is commonly believed that the president told the team manager Lee Yoo-seong that if his players failed to win then they should throw themselves into the sea. It seems, however, that Lee actually told Rhee that this is what they would do voluntarily if they left Japan without a World Cup spot.

It is hard to imagine the feeling the team must have had as they left. The new South Korean nation listened on radio; a first live sporting broadcast from overseas. The weather in Tokyo in front of 20,000 fans was wet and cold enough for rain to become sleet and slow. The muddy conditions suited the fitter Korean team better and — amazingly given that Japan were hosts and favourites — the visitors ran out 5-1 winners despite first going a goal down. The second leg ended 2-2, and there were to be no dunkings after all. Korea qualified for the World Cup, though it took several flights on military planes, making a series of refuelling stops, to reach their destination. They arrived in Switzerland just hours before a first game with Hungary and had to spend the little time they had sewing numbers on to their shirts. The Mighty Magyars won 9-0, and three days later came a second thrashing, 7-0 at the hands of Turkey.


Korea returned to the global stage in 1986, by which time the country had established Asia’s oldest professional league. Participation in Italia ‘90 confirmed that the Taeguk Warriors were Asia’s leading power. Japan wanted to catch up. The superiority of the newly professional Koreans was shown in the final play-off to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In front of over 60,000 fans in Tokyo, the hosts threw everything at their opponents, but after soaking up the pressure the visitors hit back and took a 2-0 lead. Japan got a goal back but the second leg was a comfortable 1-0 win for South Korea in Seoul. After this heartbreak, coach Takaji Mori said what everyone knew to be true: “The Koreans have surpassed us in everything. I feel strongly that we too have to turn professional.”

At the time, the Japanese economy was booming to the extent that it was the envy of the planet and causing all kinds of worries in the United States that American dominance would be challenged. The money was there in Tokyo to set up a professional league, and in October 1989 the announcement was made: the J.League would turn Japan into a regular World Cup qualifier, and the country would become the first Asian host of the tournament in 2002. The old company teams could stay in their cities but would have to change their names to reflect their origins and build links with the local communities.

The new J.League would kick off in 1993. Qualification for the 1994 World Cup was also on the agenda, especially when in May 1992 the Japanese football association hired a foreign coach for the first time in the national team’s history. In his first press conference, Hans Ooft said openly: “The reason I have come here again (after a short spell with Mazda in the 1980s) is to make sure Japan qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.”

“’The Agony of Doha’ has gone down as the biggest disaster of Japanese football. ‘The Miracle of Doha’ was widely celebrated in Seoul and is still talked about with affection.”

An early clash with South Korea saw the Dutchman stun the players before kick-off by ripping the South Korean team sheet into little pieces. The message was clear: let them worry about us. The game ended 0-0, the first Japanese clean sheet against the old enemy in 22 games. Soon after, the Samurai Blue won the 1992 Asian Cup — a first ever continental triumph — and the World Cup was within reach. Both East Asian rivals won their initial groups in qualification, and both headed west to Qatar for the final round. Six teams would play each other once, with the top two heading to the USA.

Japan finally defeated South Korea in a match that really mattered, but this was not what would determine whether the teams qualified. Going into the final game Japan faced Iraq, needing a win to ensure World Cup qualification. It started well: Kazuyoshi Miura (he is still playing professionally 25 years later) headed the Samurai Blue into a fifth-minute lead. At half-time, Ooft wrote 45 MINS TO USA on a large sheet of paper; it was the most complex message he could get through to his excitable players. Iraq equalised ten minutes after the break, but Masashi Nakayama restored the lead with 20 minutes remaining.

A talented team, Iraq had nothing to play for but pushed the opposition back, surprising the East Asians with their persistence and passion. As the clock ticked, all thoughts of Ooft’s “compact football” went out of the window. Anywhere would do — but it did not. In injury time, a short corner was floated over, and there was Omran Salman to head home for Iraq. Many Japanese players collapsed to the ground and could not restart for some time, but then the whistle went and the reality of what happened began to sink in when the news came through that South Korea had won the Korean derby. “The Agony of Doha” has gone down as the biggest disaster of Japanese football. “The Miracle of Doha” was widely celebrated in Seoul and is still talked about with affection.


As devastating as that result in Doha was, Japan had other things to think about — namely the 2002 World Cup. It had been announced back in 1989 that the country would aim to host a first Asian World Cup, and there was strong support from FIFA leadership for this. Korea started to think about it a year later, and this was given a further push by qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. It was a fourth appearance for the country while Japan was still waiting for a debut, and Korea felt this could give them an advantage. Another significant factor was that Chung Mong-joon, a leading member of the Hyundai family, became president of the Korean FA. He was very keen to see the tournament come to his homeland, and in 1993 it was decided. When Chung subsequently became the first Asian vice-president of FIFA in 1994, momentum started to build.

The Korean team was energetic in its campaigning and were soon making ground on the front-runners. The media in the respective countries were starting to go into overdrive with old history raked over once more. Korea had hosted the Olympics in 1988, a coming-out party for a newly democratic nation that had developed incredibly quickly from the 1960s onwards to become a major economic power. Taking the World Cup from the former colonial power, one that Korea still compared itself to, would be a major coup at home and internationally. Everyone knew that the tournament was coming east, and with China focused on securing the 2000 Olympics at that time, there was a chance.

Both countries had shown in the past that they had what it took to host the Olympics (Tokyo 1964, Sapporo 1972, Seoul 1988). Both had impressive levels of public, political and corporate support, and both were promising to spend big on new stadia. It was not about who could stage it but who should.

The Japanese felt that the World Cup had virtually been promised to them by FIFA in the early days. During the 1993 U-17 World Cup hosted by Japan, FIFA president João Havelange (in office 1974-98) had certainly given the impression that it was a done deal. Tokyo, then, was less than happy at Korea’s entrance. What seemed to be in the bag started to move around a little. It was an uncomfortable feeling. UEFA, who had had enough of Havelange, proved to be open to the Korean proposal.

Japan had Pelé and Korea got Maradona. Officials from the two countries could be seen at every major football game and event. There were rival parties thrown in the same cities. Japan had the higher international profile and the bigger economy, but Korea had a greater football pedigree and could also talk about bringing in North Korea to create a genuine legacy, an oft-played yet attractive card when bidding for international events.

The high-level lobbying continued all the way to Zurich in June 1996, when FIFA shocked everyone by awarding the World Cup to two countries for the first time ever — just days after Havelange said such a thing could never happen.

Undoubtedly Korea was happier, or less upset, at the decision. “This is a victory for us and a loss for Japan,” Kim Ga-young, an official with Korea's World Cup bidding committee, said. “The Japanese were all along against the idea of co-hosting, but they accepted it at the last minute. We won.” President Kim Young-sam sent a message of congratulations to the team in Zurich. “I believe that the co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup will serve as an occasion to further solidify the friendly relations of Korea and Japan,” were his optimistic words. The Japanese delegation held out against the decision for longer and said almost nothing. "This is the worst-case scenario," said Kenji Mori, managing director of Japan's professional J.League.

There was talk of reconciliation between the two countries through the World Cup, even if the usual spats about history textbooks and Japan denying past charges of sex slavery flared up through the media from time to time. Ultimately, Korea saw co-hosting as a competition with Japan that could be won — or at least not lost. Japan had been the first to develop economically and the Koreans were desperate not to be seen as second best on and off the pitch.

Yet despite the wrangles over who would host the final, over the mascots, and about which country would come first in the official title, it went pretty well. I watched one Korea group game in a Tokyo bar and did the opposite in Seoul, and on both occasions locals were quite supportive of their rivals; there was a feeling that this was an Asian World Cup and Asia needed to do well. And do well it did, and the World Cup fortunes of the two countries have been closely matched ever since. The rivalry is still there but the next major slice of World Cup history will surely come when they meet on the biggest stage of all. That would be quite something.

Words: John Duerden ǀ Images: Offside

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