One of Asia's fiercest soccer rivalries has become one-sided

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - An Asian soccer rivalry unlike no other is starting to become one-sided.

South Korea has defeated Japan 42 times and lost just 16 matches. But Japan has won its last two matches against its regional foes by 3-0 score lines in the past 18 months, including a match this week in Japan.

When Japan made its first World Cup appearance in 1998, South Korea was playing in its fifth tournament. The South Koreans reached the semifinals in 2002 when the two countries co-hosted and remains the best performance by any Asian team at the World Cup.

In 2018, however, Japan advanced to the knockout stages while South Korea failed to advance from group play.

In March 2021, Japan defeated its rival 3-0 in Yokohama and it repeated that feat in Toyota on Wednesday in the East Asian Championships, clearly superior in both games. And it is not just the senior team - a June meeting at the Asian under-23 championships saw Japan win 3-0 once more.

"These days, Japanese players do not have a complex about Korea or feel that they are psychologically inferior," Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said when asked after Wednesday's game if the country had overcome its stigma against South Korea.

Japanese media were not overly excited with the victory that gave the host nation seven points and first place in the East Asian Championships which also featured China and Hong Kong.

"It was not a satisfactory win as Korea was too weak," said Soccer Digest.

South Korea coach Paulo Bento said the defeat resulted from defensive mistakes and preferred not to talk about the rivalry between the teams.

"It is dangerous to compare only with Japan because the environment, situation, and training methods in each country are different," he said.

Comparisons are inevitable, however, between Asia's two most successful soccer nations. With both teams missing European-based stars, Wednesday's meeting was largely between players from the J-League and the K-League.

Japan, fielding a less experienced team, won comfortably.

Although South Korea boasts Asia's biggest star in Son Heung-min, who won the English Premier League's Golden Boot award as leading goal scorer with Tottenham Hotspur last season, Japan can name an entire roster filled with European-based players.

And domestically, the J-League is in the ascendancy with pre-pandemic attendances of 20,751 in 2019, more than double that of its South Korean counterpart.

Regardless of recent results and the attendance drop, South Korean defender Kim Jin-su is confident that Asia's most successful World Cup team will be able to turn things around before the start of November's World Cup in Qatar.

Japan is playing in Group E with Germany, Costa Rica and Spain. South Korea is in Group H with Uruguay, Ghana and Portugal.

"Of course, we are worried (about the Japan loss) but there is still time to prepare for the World Cup," Kim said.


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