It is perhaps the biggest rivalry in Asian football and when Japan and South Korea meet, no quarter is asked or given on the pitch. Occasionally however, the history boils over.
Just minutes after South Korea defeated its neighbor to take home a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, South Korea’s best placement, midfielder Park Jong-woo celebrated the victory by holding up a banner handed to him by a member of the crowd.
On the banner was the message, “Dokdo is our land.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Dokdo is the Korean name for a group of islands that lie between Korea and Japan. Seoul has maintained control since 1953 but Japan also claims them and calls them Takeshima.
The issue of ownership over the islands is a long running sore in relations between the two countries. Last week South Korean President Lee Myung-bak infuriated Tokyo by making a visit the islands. Japan immediately recalled its ambassador to Seoul in protest of Lee’s trip.
Park’s actions after the game in Cardiff did also not sit well with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which prescribes political statements or actions. The body prevented him from attending the medal ceremony held the next day. It remains to be seen if he will be awarded a medal or not.
"We are aware of the issue concerning the display of a political banner during yesterday's bronze medal football match between the Republic of Korea and Japan," an IOC statement said. "We have opened an inquiry and have asked the NOC (National Olympic committee) of the Republic of Korea for an explanation. We have also requested that the Republic of Korea NOC takes swift action on this issue and that the athlete not be present at today's medal presentation ceremony."
An official from the Korea Football Association stressed that Park's actions were a spur of the moment thing.
"Park was running around with the banner which he got from the crowd. We saw the message on the banner so we quickly took it from him. But in that moment someone took a picture," Yonhap News Agency reported citing an official from the KFA. "He seemed to be quite excited about winning, that's why he was running around with the sign from the crowd. It wasn't planned."
The incident overshadowed a somewhat important day for Korean football. The victory over Japan did not only give the Taeguk Warriors their first ever medal at the tournament but also exempted the 18 members of the squad from having to serve mandatory military service.
All able-bodied South Korean males must spend two years in the army and professional football players are no different. Any athlete who collects an Olympic medal, however, earns an exemption from military service.