By Chris Gallagher
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan and North Korea met on Saturday in what had the potential to be a tumultuous soccer match but spectators largely shrugged off the tensions between the two countries and focused on supporting their teams.
The East Asian Championships game, which Japan won 1-0, took place less than two weeks after North Korea fired an advanced intercontinental ballistic missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, the latest in a series of tests this year that included firing two missiles over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
Kim Song Gi, an ethnic Korean from Japan who plays for North Korea, had told Reuters this week that he would welcome boos as a source of motivation but the fans were respectful of their opponents during player introductions, national anthems and throughout the game.
“Political affairs are irrelevant, it is player against player for sports, and then country against country (for politics),” said Han Mi Hwi, a 20-year-old North Korean university student living in Japan.
“So even though Japan and the U.S. are bashing North Korea for their actions, that is irrelevant, and I think we should look at who wins and who loses fairly.”
North Koreans are not allowed to travel to Japan under sanctions in place over Pyongyang’s weapons program but there are many who were born and live in Japan under permanent resident status.
The North Korean players received a travel exception.
Japan got an injury-time goal to win in their first match of the final round of the championship which runs until Dec. 16.
Japan’s head coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, said that there were tensions between countries in any region and that the athletes were not there for politics but rather to “share friendship, brotherhood and joy”.
“I’m very proud to be part of the family of sport. It promotes the best thing in the society we’re living in, in a completely crazy world,” he said.
“That’s the best response we can give to the politicians.”
(Additional reporting by Megumi Lim; editing by Clare Fallon)