INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - Few football fixtures are painted with as much political intrigue as a clash between North and South Korea, and Thursday’s Asian Games final promises to stoke passions on both sides of the world’s most heavily militarised border.
The last time the two sides met in the Asiad final was in 1978 in Bangkok, where neither team could find the net and gold medals were handed out to both sets of players.
A post-game report in the Bangkok Post read: “Both sides were relieved to see the gruelling game end, and the atmosphere could not have been more friendly as the 22 players embraced each other.”
Given the current frosty state of inter-Korean relations, another show of cross-border conviviality is unlikely whatever the score at Munhak Stadium.
Tensions between North and South are high and the two states are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Sports exchanges between the two are becoming more common, though sometimes do more harm than good.
A 2008 World Cup qualifier had to be moved from North Korea to China after the North refused to fly the flag or play the anthem of the South before kick-off.
A return qualifier a year later resulted in a win for South Korea amid accusations from the North that they had been poisoned by their opponents, who denied the claims.
Shortly before the Incheon Asian Games began, South Korea’s government issued a stern reminder to its citizens that they were banned from carrying the North Korean flag.
Incheon’s organising committee (IAGOC) said all the necessary precautions had been taken for the match.
”It is not the first time for us to hold a North Korea vs South Korea match,“ Kim Bae-ok, director of IAGOC’s media support bureau, told reporters. ”All preparations will follow the standard procedures, as have been done before.
”I‘m not saying there are no special security plans in place. We will make sure the game is conducted safely.
“The game itself is not a special event,” said Kim, though given the history between the two many would disagree.
The North’s participation at the Games was in doubt only a few months ago after discussions on the details of its delegation broke down.
On Sept. 19, the day of the opening ceremony, South Korea fired warning shots after a North Korean patrol boat crossed a disputed maritime border to the west of the divided peninsula.
North Korea’s athletes have performed well at the Games, winning nine gold medals so far and breaking a string of world records in weightlifting.
But it is the performances of their soccer teams that have fired the imagination of the North’s citizens, particularly the win over South Korea in the women’s semi-finals on Monday.
“I don’t know how to describe my feelings about the happy news of our women’s football team’s advance into the finals,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency quoted Pyongyang citizen Han Jong Nam as saying.
“I want to embrace all those admirable women footballers who gave great pleasure to the people in the homeland.”
Beating Japan in the women’s final on Wednesday and victory over the South in the men’s gold medal match the following day could bring on another outpouring of national pride.
For the South, Thursday’s final is also a matter of pride.
Football is far better funded in the South, its players far better paid and therefore defeat on home soil to North Korea, one of the world’s poorest countries and the South’s ideological opposite, would be hard to stomach.
Victory for South Korea would also release their players from two years of mandatory military service.
Aimed at fostering an elite athletes programme, the Seoul government offers the exemptions for competitors who win gold at the Asian Games or a medal of any colour at the Olympics.
South Korea’s head coach Lee Kwang-jong said his players were well aware of the importance of Thursday’s game.
“We have not been in finals for 28 years in the Asian Games,” he said. “Our players are eager to win tomorrow, so we will do our best.”
South Korea last won the gold medal in 1986 when they beat Saudi Arabia in the final in Seoul.
Editing by John O'Brien