Battle of the Koreas: Our assistant sports editor on how the South beat the North

Last-gasp strike helps South stun neighbours North for football gold

Better late than never, the South Koreans clinch the football gold medal - their first in 28 years - courtesy of a goal scored by defender Rim Chang Woo mere seconds before full time.
Better late than never, the South Koreans clinch the football gold medal - their first in 28 years - courtesy of a goal scored by defender Rim Chang Woo mere seconds before full time. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

IF THIS was supposed to be the most politically-charged Asian Games football final ever, no one bothered to tell the 47,120- strong crowd at the Munhak Stadium yesterday.

South Korea and North Korea - two countries technically still at war but having the same race and language - were vying for gold on the pitch in Incheon.

It was won in the very last minute of extra time by the South Koreans, breaking the hearts of their valiant neighbours who fell to a lone goal.

But those expecting the affair to be a fiery display of political sloganeering on the stands would be disappointed. The most "provocative" move was to unfurl a huge South Korea flag at the side stand.

Otherwise, the South Korean fans were content to sit and slurp instant cup noodles in between cheers on a chilly night.

Parents also felt safe enough to let schools take their young kids to watch the match.

"We are just treating like it's a normal final," said 44-year-old engineer Lee Soon Guk, who took his wife and two sons to catch the match. "All of us are Koreans after all, we won't treat the North Koreans with any disrespect."

Indeed, while security personnel patrolled the stands dutifully, there was nothing to spark off any stand-offs between rival fans.

While North Korea allowed its athletes to travel south for the Asiad, it did not allow many fans to do the same.

Last night, only a small group of North Koreans sat in the grandstands, politely waving their flags while the South Koreans did their spine-tingling "Dae han min gook" chant, immortalised when they co-hosted the 2002 World Cup Finals with Japan.

On the pitch, there were also few fireworks. Apart from some robust tackles which caused a couple of tempers to flare, the players largely competed firm but fair.

Yesterday's match was the second time North and South Korea have met in an Asian Games football match.

The first, a 0-0 draw in the 1978 Bangkok Games, was also the first time the two countries had met in football. Since then, they have vied another 14 times, with South Korea winning seven and North Korea once. Six matches were drawn.

Still, the North Koreans made mockery of their Fifa world ranking of No. 150 - one rank below Singapore, who were eliminated in the group stage of the competition - and were more than a handful for their world No. 63 neighbours with clever, off-the-ball running.

By the second half, however, the South Koreans showed their superior passing to run their opponents ragged, especially with North Korea having needed extra time to beat Iraq 1-0 on Tuesday.

The North Koreans, who were without top striker Jong Il Gwan after he was sent off after scoring the winner against Iraq, still managed to come closest to winning in regulation, as Pak Kwang Ryong's header crashed off the crossbar with 10 minutes left.

With both sides unable to find the scoring touch in front of goal, the match dragged into extra time. Just when it seemed penalties were inevitable, up popped defender Rim Chang Woo to slam home from a goalmouth melee in the 120th minute to send the home crowd into a frenzy.

The North Koreans collapsed in sheer agony at the final whistle while their South Korean counterparts hugged and cried in joy.

They have won their first Asian Games title in 28 years and will be excused two years of mandatory military service - probably the only political repercussion from this enthralling football game.

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