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Soccer Match Between Japan and North Korea Complicated by Off-Field Rivalry and Issues

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Initially, Japan had told its fans not to attend an important soccer match against rival North Korea at Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang next week. Now, however, it seems the players won’t be going either.

The 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier scheduled for March 26 had been canceled, with a date and alternative venue yet to be decided, Japanese outlet Kyodo reported on Thursday evening.

Kozo Tajima, president of the Japan Football Association (JFA), said that North Korea had sent a letter to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) explaining that the match could not be held in Pyongyang because of concerns about an infectious disease currently spreading in Japan. North Korea, Tajima said, requested that the match be played instead in Japan, but JFA rejected that proposal “due to procedural issues.”

AFC confirmed the cancellation “due to unforeseen circumstances” in a statement on Friday, saying: “The matter will now be referred to the relevant Committees in FIFA with further updates to be communicated in due course.”

JFA had said earlier this month that it expected the match in Pyongyang to proceed as planned, though on Tuesday, a statement released by Japan’s foreign ministry told Japanese soccer-watchers to refrain from traveling to North Korea to see it, “as part of measures against North Korea.”

Japan has discouraged, but does not explicitly ban, its citizens from traveling to North Korea. In 2017, the foreign ministry issued an advisory asking citizens to “please refrain from traveling to North Korea for any purpose,” among other sanctions in response to nuclear weapons tests. Similar advisories had been issued, lifted, and reissued in years prior. The two countries do not have official diplomatic relations. 

The Japan and North Korea men’s soccer teams are in a group with Syria and Myanmar as part of the second round of the Asian Federation’s qualification process for the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. With each team playing each other team in the group, home and away, Japan and North Korea faced off on Thursday at Tokyo National Stadium, where the visitors were defeated 1-0.

The North Korean men’s soccer team arrived in Japan on Tuesday, having been granted exceptions to enter the country despite Japan’s ban on North Korean visitors that was reimposed in 2016. There were some supporters for the North Korean team at the match in Tokyo in the form of Japan’s ethnic Korean community. (When North Korea last participated in a World Cup finals tournament, in South Africa in 2010, it famously paid Chinese people to cheer in the stands, joining about 300 North Koreans “carefully recruited” by the government to attend as fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

Japan and North Korea have maintained what’s been described by observers as “one of the fiercest rivalries in international football,” in large part stemming from historical political tensions between the two countries: North Korea, much like its democratic counterpart in the South, holds a longstanding grudge against Japan for its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula in the early 1900s; meanwhile, Japan has over the past decade imposed a number of sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear weapons program.

In 2011, the last time the two teams played against each other in Pyongyang, which was then to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Japan brought just 150 fans to the 50,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium due to visa restrictions imposed by North Korea—and the fans were subjected to heavy restrictions on their behavior, including bans on bringing mobile phones, waving Japanese flags, or cheering loudly.

Japanese government officials were deployed for that match in 2011 in case of “unexpected contingency,” the foreign ministry said at the time. And Japan will similarly send 14 officials to Pyongyang this weekend to support the men’s team and media personnel, including helping out with entry into the notoriously isolated state.

Japan, currently FIFA’s 18th best team in the world, has qualified for every quadrennial men’s World Cup since 1998, including in 2002 when it co-hosted the tournament with South Korea. The only other World Cup finals tournament that North Korea’s men’s team, currently ranked 114th by FIFA, has competed in, besides South Africa in 2010, was the 1966 tournament in England, where North Korea became the first Asian team to advance past the first round but was defeated in the quarterfinals by Portugal.

In October, after the Japanese men’s soccer team beat North Korea at the Asian Games quarterfinals, North Korean players attacked the referee, requiring the intervention of security officials.

Last month, the first leg of the women’s soccer qualifying playoff for the Paris Olympics was changed from Pyongyang to Saudi Arabia, considered neutral ground, upon request from the Japan Football Association, which was concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding match operations from their North Korean hosts and logistical challenges like the scarcity of flights. The Japanese women’s team ended up beating their North Korean counterparts to secure a place in the upcoming Paris Olympics.

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