- Japan and Korea Republic squared off for the first time in 1954
- The clash decided which of them would reach the FIFA World Cup
- ‘Golden Legs’ and late drama had big says in the outcome
In 1954, there was a preliminary competition in Asia for the first time in the history of the FIFA World Cup™. With Israel entering the European qualifiers and Thailand withdrawn after the draw, arch-rivals Japan and Korea Republic were left in Group 13 to fight for the right to represent the continent.
The Far Eastern affair was supposed to be played on a home-and-away basis, but then South Korean president Syngman Rhee was against competing with "past invaders" in principle, and was adamant the Japanese would not be allowed on Korean soil. Ultimately, however, Rhee permitted the national team to play both legs in Japan – but on one condition: "Be prepared to throw yourselves into the ocean if you lose."
So it was that the first-ever football match between Japan and Korea Republic was held in Tokyo on 7 March 1954, with the visitors taking a 5-1 lead. FIFA.com takes a look back on their second encounter at the same venue.
14 March 1954, Meiji Jingu Stadium, Tokyo
Japan 2-2 Korea Republic (Korea Republic win 7-3 on aggregate)
Scorers: Iwatani (JPN) 16, Chung Nam-Sick (KOR) 25, Choi Jung-Min (KOR) 42, Iwatani (JPN) 60
Japan: Hidema Watabe, Ryuzo Hiraki, Yoshio Okada, Takashi Wakabayashi, Nobuo Matsunaga, Masao Ohwa, Masanori Kamota, Taro Kagawa, Taizo Kawamoto, Toshio Iwatani, Takashi Kano.
Korea Republic: Hong Dukyoung, Park Kyujong, Lee Jongkap, Lee Sangyi, Min Byungdae, Kim Jisung, Choi Gwangsuk, Sung Nakwoon, Choi Jungmin, Chung Namsick, Park Ilkap.
Having lost the first leg 5-1 under the driving sleet a week earlier, Japan desperately needed a win to keep their hopes alive. As the goal-difference rule did not apply at the time, the hosts could have taken the series into the third and decisive match even if they had won by a single-goal margin.
Korea Republic's mission was far from accomplished despite their emphatic victory in the first match. And with their president having sounded such a foreboding warning, the players knew that their futures – perhaps even their lives – depended entirely on avoiding defeat.
Japan coach Shigemaru Takekoshi made no fewer than eight changes to the side that had lost the first match, with the influential trio of Yoshio Okada, Taro Kagawa, and Takashi Kano only survivors from the previous game. Cheered on by some 13,000 fans, the new-look hosts took the initiative with the type of slick passing that has become their hallmark. And before long, they had the lead. After receiving a fine pass from Kawamoto, Kano sent an inviting cross for Iwatani, who slotted home from close range in the 16th minute.
The visitors, however, were determined to finish the job. In the 25th minute, two-goal hero of the first leg Chung Namsick made it 1-1 with an audacious lob, and five minutes later Choi Jungmin saw a goal-bound effort kept out by Hidema Watabe. But Choi would not be denied and, on 42 minutes, the Japanese goalkeeper found himself picking up the ball from the net as Choi made no mistake with an unstoppable effort.
Japan had to score and, on the hour-mark, they did. Okada broke free on the left flank to deliver a perfect cross for Iwatani, who calmly collected the ball and sent it past Hong Dukyoung. This sparked a predictably dramatic finish, and Hong was called upon to perform heroics with 15 minutes remaining to deny Kawamoto as the Japanese surged forward in search of a winner.
Still, there was time for more excitement. With only five minutes left, Kawamoto nipped in ahead of the keeper to seemingly roll the ball into an empty net. Yet just as the Japanese players were about to celebrate, defender Lee Jongkap raced in to rescue Korea Republic, clearing the ball off the line in a moment of heart-stopping drama.
Known as 'Golden Legs' among the fans, the late Choi Jungmin was one of the best strikers in Asia at that time. A powerful figure up front with a tenacious attitude, Choi was a constant threat to the opponents he faced across the continent. He was also a key member of the Korea Republic side that won the first and the second editions of the AFC Asian Cup respectively in 1956 and 1960.
What they said
"Choi Jungmin was such a great player with balance and speed. We couldn't stop him. We felt as if we were a group of children playing against a big man."
Ryuzo Hiraki, Japan defender
"After the first match, there were feelings within the group that Japan were not stronger than we had expected. Besides, we received a warm welcome from the Korean community there and were treated very well every night. Maybe so well that it affected our next game."
Lee Youhyung, Korea Republic coach
What happened next...
Korea Republic reached the finals of Switzerland 1954, where they were eliminated from the group stage after humbling defeats to Hungary (9-0) and Turkey (7-0). Japan, meanwhile, had to wait another 44 years to finally take their bow on the world stage, reaching France 1998 by virtue of a dramatic 3-2 Asian Zone play-off victory over Iran 3-2 on 16 November 1997.