When Japan participated in a World Cup for the first time in 1998, South Korea participated in its fifth tournament. The South Koreans reached the semi-finals in 2002, when the two countries co-hosted, and remain the best performance of any Asian team at the World Cup.
However, in 2018 Japan reached the knockout rounds while South Korea did not progress through the group stage.
In March 2021, Japan defeated their rival 3-0 in Yokohama and repeated that feat on Wednesday at the East Asian Championships in Toyota with clear superiority in both games. And it’s not just the senior side – Japan again won 3-0 in a clash at the Asian U23 Championships in June.
“Nowadays, Japanese players don’t have any complexes about Korea or feel psychologically inferior,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu when asked after Wednesday’s game if the country had overcome its stigma against South Korea.
The Japanese media were not overly enthusiastic about the win, which gave the host country seven points and first place at the East Asian Championships, which also included China and Hong Kong.
“It wasn’t a satisfying win as Korea was weak,” said Soccer Digest.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento said the defeat was due to defensive errors and preferred not to discuss the rivalry between the teams.
“It’s dangerous to only compare with Japan because the environment, situation and training methods are different in each country,” he said.
However, comparisons between the two most successful soccer nations in Asia are inevitable. With both teams lacking European-based stars, Wednesday’s clash was mostly between players from the J-League and K-League.
Japan, fielding a less experienced team, won easily.
Although South Korea boast Asia’s biggest star in Son Heung-min, who won the English Premier League’s Golden Boot as top scorer with Tottenham Hotspur last season, Japan boast a roster of European-based players.
And domestically, the J-League is on the rise with 20,751 pre-pandemic attendances in 2019, more than double its South Korean counterpart.
Despite recent results and a drop in attendance, South Korean defender Kim Jin-su is confident Asia’s most successful World Cup team can turn things around before the World Cup begins in Qatar in November.
Japan is in Group E with Germany, Costa Rica and Spain. South Korea plays in Group H with Uruguay, Ghana and Portugal.
“Obviously we’re worried (about losing to Japan), but we still have time to prepare for the World Cup,” said Kim.
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