North and South Korea meet in Seoul today in a crunch World Cup qualifier as tensions between the countries mount ahead of a planned rocket launch by the communist North.
It is under this cloud that the neighboring states collide on the soccer field in only the second FIFA-sanctioned match between them on South Korean soil. The first was in June last year, with two subsequent World Cup qualifiers scheduled for Pyongyang moved to Shanghai after the North refused to play the South Korean anthem or display its national flag. The players will attempt to put the politics aside as they battle for the top spot in Asian Group B.
The North, who last made the World Cup finals in 1966, have 10 points from five games and lead the group after a gritty 2-0 home win over the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at home on Saturday.
The victory puts pressure on their southern neighbors, who are second on eight points but with a game in hand.
Saudi Arabia have seven points, Iran six and the UAE one with only the top two teams automatically booking their place in South Africa next year.
South Korea are again led by their Europe-based veterans, including Manchester United winger Park Ji-sung and defensive back Lee Young-pyo, who now plys his trade with Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund. Lee and his fellow defenders will be tasked with blanking dynamic North Korean forward Jong Tae-se and his speedy sidekick Hong Yong-jo while Park will look to orchestrate scoring chances from midfield.
The Manchester United star insisted the team was not thinking about reclaiming top place in the group and instead said his side must focus on their own game.
“Everyone just has to show what he has and play with organization but not worry about the fact that North Koreans are the leaders now,” the South Korea captain said. South Korea edged Iraq 2-1 in a nervy friendly on Saturday, but while coach Huh Jung-moo said it was “a fairly good prep before the North Korean match,” he lamented a series of missed scoring chances.
“Our ability to penetrate the opposing defense and our two-on-one passing was working well in the later stages of the game. It was a good preparation match for the game against North Korea,” Huh said. “But we should have scored more goals. We have to do a better job of converting our opportunities.”
South Korea, semi-finalists in the 2002 World Cup, have bagged eight goals in their four qualifying matches, but half of them came against the UAE.