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May 30, 2017

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World Cup brings new Japan-S. Korea rivalry

TOKYO -- Japan and South Korea will need to produce something special to meet at the World Cup, but expect a cut-throat battle for bragging rights in one of international football's fiercest rivalries.

The tournament will also be tinged with emotion for both sides, with Japan playing for the victims of the deadly tsunami in 2011 and the Koreans keen to provide a measure of solace after last month's ferry tragedy.

Asian champions Japan and South Korea, World Cup semifinalists in 2002, could theoretically clash in the last four in what would be a highly charged encounter as diplomatic relations between the countries remain icy.

Political tensions have spilled over in the recent past. At the 2012 Olympics, a South Korea player inflamed a territorial row with Tokyo by waving a political placard after the 2-0 win over Japan in the bronze medal game.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have soured further since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, aggravated by his visit to a Tokyo shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's militant past.

The odds of the two teams meeting in Brazil may be slim but they will be keen to leave South America as Asia's best-performing side, with both looking stronger on paper than Australia and Iran.

Both reached the same stage at the last World Cup in 2010, after a Luis Suarez double for Uruguay saw off South Korea in the last 16 and Japan lost on penalties to Paraguay at the same stage.

But while Japan have made strides under Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, South Korea have appeared to go backwards. Although they are in their eighth straight World Cup finals, they only qualified on goal difference.

"If we concentrate on our game, the results should come," Zaccheroni told reporters earlier this week. "We go to Brazil fearing nobody."

As if to underline their coach's sentiments, Japan will have the slogan "Samurai, the time has come to fight!" emblazoned on their official Hyundai team bus.

The irony of riding a Korean-made bus in Brazil will not be lost on Japan, who have previously been left in the rear-view mirror by their neighbors in major competitions.

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