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Aug 11, 2012

South Korea win battle to avoid war

If you find yourself in any one of the thousands of Karaoke rooms in Seoul, there is a good chance you will hear the words of 'A Private's Letter', floating through the underground labyrinths that spring to life as the evening grows old. A sentimental song written from the perspective of a young man about to join the army, it has become something of a Friday night staple.

On this Saturday morning however, microphones and tambourines were left untouched as a nation tuned into see whether their young football stars could defeat Japan, take bronze at the 2012 Olympics and be granted exemption from the mandatory military stint given to all Korean athletes who make the podium at the Olympics.

Any one on its own would be powerful motivation but add them together and the meeting at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was a huge one for coach Hong Myong-Bo and his players. The military issue loomed especially large. Whenever South Korean boxer Han Soon-Chul needed a pick-me-up in the early rounds of the 2012 Olympics, his trainer simply yelled 'army, army' from the corner. It must have worked as Han fights for gold on Sunday. Hong didn't need to remind his players of what was at stake and spent much of the first half telling them to calm down.

Football is the highest profile sport to be affected by the fact that South Korea is technically still at war with its heavily armed northern neighbour. This two-year tour of duty must be started by the time men turn 28 and it has held back a number of very promising careers.

Interest from European clubs has in the past been cut dead when it became clear that a player would have to be back home within three years and there would be no sell-on value. Players in the K-League who are just reaching their peak with the top clubs are sent away for two years to represent the army team which, from 2013, will permanently play in the country's second tier.

That fate no longer lies in store for any of the 18-man squad, even Kim Kee-Hee. The Daegu defender was a last-minute replacement for the injured Jang Hyun-Soo and never got near the pitch until the last minute of the last game with Japan. Hong knew that the exemption needed an appearance on the pitch and the introduction of Kim with the game virtually won was a fine gesture.

Not all agree with the current exemption rule for sportspeople who win on the world stage and there could be a revision in the not-too-distant future but as the rising sun appeared over the Land of the Morning Calm, few of the millions watching would have cared too much about that.

Playing Japan made a big game bigger though the Samurai Blue weren't seen as ideal opponents. The two teams know each other well, Japan were highly-motivated and excited to have the chance to win the bronze, had impressed immensely in the tournament and would have loved nothing more than to inflict a devastating defeat on Korea on the world stage. To play another team who had targeted gold and who saw bronze as an unworthy substitute may have been an easier option. Add in the fact that Korea often tries too hard against Japan, a nation that brutally occupied the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, it was all very uncertain.

Korea started brightly but as the first half wore on, Japan were getting on top and the men in white had collected three yellow cards, the worst of which was a late scything tackle from captain Koo Ja-Cheol. The chances of a red card being brandished at some point looked to be high.

It all changed with Park Chu-young's intervention. The Arsenal striker should not even have been there in the opinion of many back home and not because, or not just because, he had spent the previous year sat on the bench at Emirates Stadium. The 27-year-old had upset a significant proportion of the population by taking advantage of a little-known technicality to postpone his military duty by ten years. It cost him his place in the senior side and had he not apologised to the nation, he would likely have missed out on the Olympics.

Despite a diving header in the win over Switzerland, his lacklustre form in the competition had more and more calling for Hong to do a Wenger and forget the striker. There were few expectations when Park collected the ball just inside the Japanese half seven minutes before the break especially as he was soon surrounded by four blue-shirted defenders, but he made space for himself and shot home from just inside the area.

It was a fine goal and it settled his team-mates. A more composed Korea emerged for the second half and just before the hour, Koo Ja-Cheol, perhaps the team's best player in the tournament, scored a very British style goal in the Welsh capital, finishing with aplomb following a headed flick from a goal kick.

Japan did their utmost to get back in the game but Kensuke Nagai, so dangerous in the early games, struggled to see the ball and the talented. Hiroshi Kiyotake was looking dangerous when the score was level but had less influence as the game progressed. Japan had plenty of possession but in the face of a well-drilled defence troubled goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryeong little and it was Korea, happy to hit on the counter-attack in the second half, who ensured that Shuichi Gonda was the busier of the two shot-stoppers.

It is hard on Japan, impressive for so much of the tournament, to return home with nothing – though perhaps after time, helping to improve the reputation of Asian football will become some consolation. British fans, supplemented by colourful Japanese and Korean supporters, enjoyed an intense match with flying elbows and tackles, spilled blood, ripped shirts, fine goals and flashes of great skill. It was another side to Asian football that many don't get to see. In the words of a Spanish newspaper it was Asia's 'Argentina vs Brazil' or according to one Indian reporter 'Real Madrid vs Barcelona'.

For the Taeguk Warriors, it was simply 'Haniljeon' - the Korea-Japan game - but perhaps the most important such derby that they will ever play in.

Now they can now look forward to the kind of football career that the vast majority of international footballers take for granted and the next time they turn on the Karaoke machines when they hit the town, 'A Private's Letter' may be replaced with something a little more upbeat.

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