By Andrew Warshaw
December 13 – Forget Manchester United versus Manchester City or Real Madrid against Barcelona. It may not have made international football headlines but arguably the world’s biggest grudge match took place on Tuesday when hostile political neighbours South and North Korea played each other in the East Asian championship.
A freak own goal by defender Ri Yong-Chol 25 minutes from time in Tokyo proved the difference in South Korea’s 1-0 win which dashed any hopes the North had of winning the four-team biennial tournament that was first held in 2003 .
North Korean nationals are banned from entering Japan but despite United Nations sanctions against the North over the country’s nuclear weapons programme, their footballers were allowed to compete after the Japanese government waived travel restrictions and issued special visas.
With geo-political tensions at an all-time high following the recent spate of missile tests, local reports said both sets of players avoided eye contact in the tunnel beforehand before belting out their respective national anthems.
“It was a special game for us – special for the players and for the country,” North Korea coach Jorn Andersen told reporters afterwards. “I think for the first 30 minutes the players were a little bit nervous. We were unlucky to lose against Japan but I’m less satisfied today. I don’t know what the whole reason is that we didn’t play well. We have a small group with not so many quality players, so it is always difficult for me to change too many.”
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