Korea faces mortal enemy Japan for first Olympic medal
Reeling from a disappointing semifinal loss to Brazil, South Korea will have to regroup in time to take on mortal enemy Japan Friday with an Olympic football medal on the line.
In the men's football tournament at the London Olympics, South Korea lost to Brazil 3-0 in the semis, while Japan fell 3-1 against Mexico. The bronze medal match will be played at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Korea and Japan have never before played each other at an Olympics.
South Korea is seeking its first Olympic football medal in its ninth try. Japan won bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as the first Asian country to stand on the podium.
The game has a lot more riding on it for Korean players than a medal as an Olympic medal grants male athletes exemption from the mandatory military service.
All healthy Korean men are otherwise required to serve around two years in the armed forces. For young professional athletes, an exemption from military service means no disruption to their playing career during their prime years, and it also allows them to explore opportunities of playing overseas. Foreign clubs have shied away from signing Koreans to long-term deals because of their military obligations, and a victory over Japan would solve that problem.
Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo said the defeat to Brazil was especially frustrating because his players were just rounding into form, both mentally and physically. They had just upset host Britain in a penalty shootout to set up the Brazil game.
But there is no time to wallow in self-pity because they have one more game to play.
"I will remind the players of the importance of the final game," Hong said. "Japan mostly relies on passing and it has some speedy players. The key to our victory is how fast our players can recover."
Before Brazil, Korea had played four games in four different cities in less than two weeks. The semifinal game in Manchester finished at around 9:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday. The bronze medal match is in Cardiff at 7:45 p.m. The team was to stay in Manchester overnight, and then go through some light training Wednesday morning before traveling to Cardiff.
Once there, the players are expected to take the rest of Wednesday off and also the morning of Thursday. That will leave them an equivalent of one full day of practice.
Hong said South Koreans who are either currently playing in Japan's J-League or have played there should be great assets in the battle for the bronze because they know the tendencies of the Japanese players. Of 18 players on the Japanese team, 12 play in J-League.
Key Korean players include Kim Bo-kyung, the crafty winger who spent two seasons with Cerezo Osaka of J-League before joining Cardiff City in England's second division this summer. Midfielder Baek Sung-dong plies his trade for Jubilo Iwata; winger Jung Woo-young for Kyoto Sanga; and defensive back Hwang Seok-ho for Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Japan blanked Spain 1-0 en route to the top-place finish in Group D. It shut down Egypt 3-0 before Mexico won handily in the semis. Forward Yuki Otsu, playing for a German club, leads Japan with three goals in all five games the country has played.
Japan plays a lockdown defense and tries to pounce on turnovers to create fast break chances. Until the Mexico game, Japan hadn't allowed a single goal in four games.
But South Korean players said they don't need these scouting reports to get themselves ready against Japan. As sports rivalries go, they don't come as intense as South Korea versus Japan. Any football match against Japan, Korea's former colonial ruler, in any setting, be it a friendly, an World Cup qualifier or an Olympic tournament, is bound to generate plenty of excitement with accompanying pressure.
Team captain Koo Ja-cheol said the bronze medal match will come down to who is stronger mentally.
"Japan has never been an easy opponent, but I fully trust our guys to give everything they have," Koo said. "More than anything, we have to be mentally ready."
Ki Sung-yueng, the star midfielder, said the team's Olympics will not be complete without beating Japan.
"Our Olympic experience will mean nothing if we don't win that match," he said. "If we do win, I think it's going to feel as great as winning an actual gold."
Lee Bum-young, the second-string goalkeeper who started against Brazil for injured Jung Sung-ryong, said players are fully aware of the magnitude of the upcoming match.
"All the coaches and players said our Olympics aren't over yet," Lee said. "And I believe we must never lose to Japan." (LONDON=Yonhap)