Japan and hosts South Korea will get the Asian Games off to an unofficial start Sunday when the bitter rivals begin their bids for glory in what could be a tense football competition.
Former war-time aggressor Japan, the defending champions, can expect a frosty reception by home fans as they taste their first action in Incheon, five days before the opening ceremony.
Officials will be braced for a repeat of their controversial London Olympics clash if both Japan and South Korea, bracketed in separate groups, reach the October 2 final.
In 2012, after South Korea won 2-0 to secure the bronze medal, Park Jong-Woo held up a sign saying “Dokdo is our territory”, referring to a highly charged dispute over a group of islands.
Park was hit by a two-match ban but it did not stop rival groups of Korean and Japanese fans unfurling political banners when the sides met at last year’s East Asia Cup.
A final between Japan and South Korea would mean a security headache for organisers in what would be a game brimming with emotion and national pride.
Apart from a gold medal, some players in the under-23 line-ups will be hoping to secure a spot in their senior teams for next year’s Asian Cup, where Japan are also defending champions.
Korean patience would be sorely tested if Japan do the double by also winning gold in the women’s competition, where their “Nadeshiko” are the world, Asian and defending Asiad champions.
For Japan’s men’s coach Makoto Teguramori, the goal is simple: reinforcing their status as the dominant force in Asian football.
“We want to show that Japan are Asia’s number one side,” Teguramori said.
“Our team is united and we can be flexible with tactics,” he added. “We will be going for a win in each match and I want to bring out the best in every player.”
– Back-to-back trophies –
Sunday’s eight matches constitute the first competition of the Asian Games, which encompass 36 sports offering 439 gold medals and close on October 4.
Japan kick off their campaign against Kuwait, while three-time winners South Korea take on Malaysia in their opening match on Sunday.
The Koreans had to settle for bronze four years ago and they haven’t won gold since Seoul 1986, something coach Lee Kwang-Jong will be keen to rectify.
His squad includes three players with World Cup experience: goalkeeper Kim Seung-Gyu, Mainz 05 defender Park Joo-Ho and 6ft 5in (1.95m) Ulsan Hyundai striker Kim Shin-Wook.
“He has great skills for a player his size. I think he should really thrive against Asian opponents,” said Lee of Kim Shin-Wook.
Iran, whose four titles remains an Asian Games record, are expected to be Japan and South Korea’s closest challengers in the men’s competition.
Twenty-nine countries will compete across eight groups, with the top two progressing to the knockout stages. Each squad is restricted to under-23s and three over-age players.
In the women’s, Japan are grouped with three-time winners China. They also can expect a challenge from 2002 and 2006 champions North Korea, who have reached the last four finals.
Japan coach Norio Sasaki, constrained by his European-based players’ club commitments, has picked some new faces alongside highly decorated stalwarts like Aya Miyama.
“We’ve got only a short time to prepare, but we’ll try to work together to aim at back-to-back trophies,” Sasaki said.
“Hopefully, we can achieve the win along with the men’s team.”