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“2026 World Cup Qualifiers”: Japan-North Korea standoff goes beyond soccer

Young Hak On was born and raised in Japan, but he will support his native North Korea when the two teams meet in Tokyo on Thursday in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup.

Ahn is one of nearly 300,000 people of North Korean descent living in Japan, part of a group that has long suffered discrimination in areas such as employment and social welfare.

He attended the Pyongyang Pro School in Japan and made 40 appearances in midfield for the North Korean national team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, opposite the likes of Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazilian Kaka and Ivorian Yaya Toure.

For some residents of Japan of North Korean descent, this week's qualifiers are a special occasion, especially for those in the stands for the North Korean team, who reflect on the opportunity to assert their identity.

A few days before Group Two's third-round clash, Japan leads with six points from two matches, three points ahead of its group, Ahn, 45 and retired from playing. Walls of the pro-Pyongyang school in Yokohama: “I played against Japan in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers at Saitama Stadium. They scored in stoppage time and we lost (1-2).”

He added: “But after the match, we all shook hands and saluted the Japanese fans. “It was a great match that went beyond the score and I'm sure it will be the same this time.”

Most Koreans in Japan are descendants of civilians taken from their homes during Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until Tokyo's defeat in World War II in 1945.

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Some, like Ahn, a third-generation Korean in Japan, attend schools supported by pro-North organizations and funded by Pyongyang.

There are no official relations between Japan and North Korea, but the Tokyo government allows pro-Pyongyang schools, though not the subsidies it provides to other schools.

Ronaldo, Kaká and Yaya face Toure at World Cup in South Africa (AFP)

Ahn started his soccer career in the Japanese league, but representing North Korea was obvious, he said: “I was born and raised in Japan, and to be honest, I know the names and faces of the Japanese players very well. The North Korean players watch them on TV.

He added: “But I am of Korean descent, my name is Ahn Young Hak (the last name is used first in Korea). “I thought of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (using the official name of North Korea) as my national team, and I always worked hard with that in mind. “

An went on school trips to Pyongyang as a child and said she and her classmates always received a warm welcome.

His teammates in the national team didn't fully open up at first, but “in the end we became like a family,” he said: “We live in different countries, but we're all human, so we deal with each other. Good faith and communication.”

He added: “I'm a football player, so I built up my confidence by working hard on the field.

Ahn was in the squad for the 2010 World Cup, which was North Korea's last stop at the World Finals.

At the time the team had a small number of Japanese-born Koreans, such that striker Se Jong Dae was dubbed “the people's Rooney” in comparison to English striker Wayne Rooney.

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He said the number of students in Korean schools in Japan is dwindling and the North Korean squad for this week's tournament is likely to include only one Japanese-born player.

Ahn runs a soccer school in Tokyo and Yokohama and wants to help develop a new generation of international players in North Korea.

Ahn, who coached the national team of Korean descent in Japan at the 2017 Alternative World Cup for non-recognized nations, said after retiring from playing: “The number of kids may be less, but there are still some who dream of playing for North Korea at the World Cup.”

Based on the experience of a man who became the first North Korean international to play in the South Korean league in 2006, Ahn tried to show native Koreans in Japan what they could achieve.

He was warned that it might be difficult as the two countries were technically at war, but the move turned out to be successful.

He believed that soccer gave a group that had long faced discrimination in Japan reasons to be proud: “I don't want kids to grow up thinking that being of Korean descent is a negative thing. I want them to use it to their advantage and realize that they can do anything. “To show the next generation that it can be done.”

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