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By Jack Halibutt

Field of schemes

Japan and North Korea show mutual admiration both on and off the pitch

Jack Halibutt is a Tokyo-based sportswriter

There’s nothing like a World Cup qualifier between Japan and North Korea to bring out the magnanimous side of the two soccer-loving Asian neighbors.

Soon after Japan was drawn to play the reclusive communist nation in home and away matches—the first of which is February 9 at Saitama Stadium—the love started flowing like warm sake on a cold night in Niigata.

Still smarting from an unpleasant experience in China last July, when Japan’s fans were unceremoniously pelted with debris during the Asian Cup, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he was looking forward to the matches and called for kind words from both sides leading up to the games.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, wearing his best brown jumpsuit, vowed to watch the games from his palatial residence while munching on an assortment of international delicacies, washed down with the bubbly lashings of Dom Perignon.

After the draw, the North Koreans started the ball rolling by kindly asking that national anthems not be played before the matches. Japan, citing FIFA rules, politely turned down the request, instead offering to have Chuck Jenkins sing Kimigayo.

Next, the North Koreans pleasantly tried to bar Japanese journalists from their practice sessions in China. While the Japanese media covering the national team do seem to require ten journalists to do the work of one, the North was a bit unreasonable on this one. Guess there aren’t too many papers over there.

Who knows what lavish treatment is in store when Japan travels to North Korea for the away leg? Something tells me the Pyongyang Hilton will be fully booked.

But hey, there’s a lot on the line here! This is serious stuff—nothing less than the opportunity to go to Germany in 2006 and get sent home after the first round.

Meanwhile in Japan, we are inundated with daily reports on the Japanese squad as they prepare for the all-important match. Every night a different player is trotted out before the TV cameras and dutifully says “I will do my best; this is a very important game for us.” If only somebody would say, “I hate those commie so-and-sos—we’re going to blow them away like lint!”

Two North Korean players, Ri Han Jae and An Yong Hak, play in the J. League and will no doubt fill their teammates in on Japan’s strengths and weaknesses. Japan coach Zico will ask Jenkins what he knows of the North Koreans. “Chuck, is it a 4-2-4 system or a flat three?”

Without question, the North Koreans will be tough as nails. Years spent toiling under the watchful eye of Big Brother in a reclusive communist nation tends to toughen one up. Unfortunately, most of the players on Zico’s squad look like they just walked off the set of a SMAP TV special. Let’s face it, Tsuneyuki “How does my hair look?” Miyamoto hardly strikes fear in the eyes of your average comrade.

If you look at the scientifically calculated FIFA rankings it should be a walkover. Japan is 19th while North Korea is a distant 97th. One thing for sure is that 70,000 Japanese fans will cram into Saitama Stadium on the night of February 9, jump up and down in unison, and serenade their side with the theme songs from The Sting and The Great Escape. What’s Paul Newman got to do with it?

As for a prediction, Japan will characteristically score an incredibly lucky goal in the waning minutes of injury time to win 1-0. Japan’s Alessandro Santos (who doesn’t look very Japanese to me) is the hero when his corner bounces off the head of a North Korean defender and into the net as the goalkeeper slips on a suspiciously slick patch of grass. After the match, Japan coach Zico will say his team played well but will have to play better in Pyongyang. The North Korean coach will say the fix was in and will promise revenge back home.

And that, my friends, is what sport is all about! FIFA fair play indeed. M

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