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Blog - World Cup Central

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Celebrating the roots of Japan and South Korea's footballing history

Any meeting between South Korea and Japan is a big one, yet perhaps the most meaningful clash took place 60 years ago this week. It was a game that saw the continent's two biggest rivals -- and soon to be biggest powers -- meet on an equal footing for the first time. It was a game that helped cultivate football's development in the region. It was a game that provided the first independent Asian representative to the World Cup (Indonesia made it in 1938 as Dutch East Indies). It was much more than a game. With the Asian Football Confederation formed in the same year and the Asian Cup coming into being in 1956, the 1954 World Cup qualification decider between South Korea and Japan marked the start of the continent's coming-out party. The two nations were no strangers to the football pitch before Japan's brutal 35-year occupation of its neighbour to the west ended in 1945. Korea had showed promise at the beautiful game, thought to be introduced by British sailors at the port of Incheon in 1882, a decade after it had arrived in Japan. An annual match between Seoul and Pyongyang started in 1929, and though it ended in a riot, it soon became a major fixture. A Seoul team even went to Japan and won the Emperor's Cup in 1935. With the surrender of Japan to the Allies in 1945 and independence for Korea, the southern half of the peninsula was quick to make a name for itself on the world stage, sending a team to the 1948 London Olympics. Made up mostly of engineers and students, the Taeguk Warriors surprisingly defeated Mexico 5-3 in Dulwich and proceeded to the quarterfinals where they lost 12-0 to Sweden at Selhurst Park. It was a promising start that seemed to end with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Three years of fierce fighting finished in a stalemate, division of the peninsula (still not accepted by either side) and millions dead. Some of those Olympians were no more. The country was devastated but even so, a team was entered into qualification for the 1954 World Cup. Seven Asian countries did the same but all ended up pulling out -- except one. In Japan, by the time early Samurai Blue took their first steps on the international stage when Tokyo hosted the third Far Eastern Games in 1917, the sport was already starting to spread throughout schools -- still a major part of the country's youth development system in 2014. Losing 15-2 at the hands of the Philippines and 5-0 to China led to calls for greater organisation of the game to ensure higher standards. The JFA was founded in 1921. The Land of the Rising Sun had picked itself up from the devastation that came with the end of the Second World War. The Tokyo Olympics were just a decade away. Baseball was going from strength to strength but football was on the move. Qualifying for the 1954 World Cup would have helped and Japan had an advantage. The tie was to be played out over two legs, on March 7 and 14, the first to be held in Tokyo and the other in Seoul. Despite being as war-ravaged as you would expect after changing hands a number of times over three years of fighting, the South Korean capital was ready to host but not willing. For Syngman Rhee, it was too soon. The first president of South Korea, whose hands had been set on fire by the Japanese in 1899 and who over 50 years later still blew on his fingers when stressed, refused to allow the Samurai Blue to come. "Of course, we felt that it was an advantage for us," said Japan's Ken Naganuma many years later. "To play both games in front of our own fans gave us the belief that we could win and represent our nation on the world stage and that was so important for us." Naganuma, in Hiroshima when the bomb fell in 1945, was to have his time and became a major figure in Japanese and Asian football. Made up of military personnel that had been fighting just nine months earlier, Korea's squad arrived in Japan with the words of President Rhee ringing in their ears. Whether his reported instruction that they should throw themselves in the ocean on the way home if they failed to win helped focus minds or not will never be known. Yet the 8,000 who witnessed the first game at the Meiji Stadium and the 13,000 who attended the second were left in no doubt as to the determination of the visitors… There was driving snow during that first leg, played at the Meiji Stadium in Tokyo. "Nobody could play football on such a pitch," reported the Asahi Shimbun -- English referee J.J. Haran said that the game could go ahead -- but it wasn't about football. It was about history and pride. Naganuma put Japan ahead in the first half but as the game descended almost into farce after the break, the Koreans adapted better. The hosts couldn't handle the onslaught and conceded five goals. Chang Nam-sik and especially Choi Jung-min, nicknamed "Asia's Golden Legs" were too much for the Japanese to handle as Ryuzo Hiraki recalled. "Choi Jung-Min was such a great player with balance and speed we couldn't stop him. We felt as if we were a group of children playing against a big man." At the end, they were indistinguishable from each other as they were covered in mud. There was no time to celebrate with the jubilant Korean community in Tokyo. Goal difference was not part of the equation. If Japan won the second tie, then there would be a third game. Coach Shigemaru Takekoshi made eight changes for the second leg and it was a much closer contest. Japan took the lead but Korea fought back and held on for a 2-2 draw. "We knew we could win but when the game ended, we couldn't believe it," said Chang. "We were going to the World Cup." And quickly too. Just three months later, they were in Switzerland. The journey was epic. There weren't enough seats on the plane -- one that stopped at more points on the world map than any carrying Indiana Jones -- and the decision was made to send the best players first and the rest later.

They took a week, arriving the night before an opening tie against the mighty Magyars of Hungary, just in time to hear the Europeans boast that they would finish the game with five goals in the first ten minutes. As they sewed their own numbers on Korean shirts that evening, players resolved to hold out for at least ten minutes, whatever happened. They did, and the first of the nine goals only came with 12 minutes on the scoreboard. Still, Korea had arrived on the world stage and while they didn't make the impact that the DPRK made 12 years later in England, a number of stars from 1954 were still involved in the game in the eighties when the Asia's first professional league was born in 1983 and the Taeguk Warriors started to qualify for the World Cup on a regular basis. For Japan, the 50s helped to provide the foundation for the country's first major success in the decade that followed. Naganuma became coach of the team that won the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games, a significant moment in the history of Japanese football. He became the eighth president of the Japan FA, stepping down in 1998 just after his country's debut appearance at the World Cup. His work had been done almost half a century after it started. Progress is still ongoing for both Japan and South Korea as they look to become ever more powerful in the football world. But wherever they go, however well they do, they will never forget the events of 60 years ago when the game was more than a game.