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Koreas probably won’t field joint football team

May 02,2018
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From above: The unified Korean football team waves to fans at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Portugal on June 21, 1991. South Korean football players, in white, shake hands with North Korean players after their match at the EAFF E-1 Championship at Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on Dec. 12, 2017. [YONHAP]
South Korea appears to be reluctant to form a unified football team with North Korea at the upcoming Asian Games as the national football governing body wants to boost teamwork within the existing squad.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Seoul recently asked 40 national sports federations whether they would be willing to form a unified team with North Koreans at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, but the Korea Football Association (KFA) said it would not.

Following the historic summit between South Korea President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last Friday, the two Koreas agreed to jointly participate in international sports competitions, including the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. The agreement raised hopes of the South and the North competing together under one flag, but the KFA said it is an issue that needs to consider the players and teamwork.

Football has been one of the sports that has linked the South and the North closely. The two Koreas competed as a single team at the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship in Portugal and held various exchange programs.

The KFA President Chung Mong-gyu also said in the past that boosting football exchanges between the two Koreas is important. Chung, who also leads the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF), even met with Han Un-gyong, the vice president of the North Korean football association, at the EAFF meeting in Busan last month.

The KFA, however, said after its executive meeting that forming a unified team can require unwanted sacrifice on the part of players, especially male footballers whose pro careers may be at stake.

In South Korea, male athletes who win gold at the Asian Games are exempted from the country’s mandatory two-year military service. Instead, they can do only four weeks of basic military training and continue their professional careers without interruption.

Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son Heung-min is one of the players looking to win an Asian Games gold to extend his career in Europe.

For the Asian Games, teams are allowed to have 20 players on their final roster. Without having entry expansion, some South Korean players may lose their opportunity to compete and clear their military service issues.

“We didn’t really mention the military service issue when we received the request to form a unified team,” an official with the KFA said. “However, there were concerns that our players could be damaged if we form a joint team with North Korea.”

At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where the South and the North competed as a single team in women’s ice hockey, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave special permission to the Koreas to have 35 players on their joint squad, although Olympic hockey rosters are set at 22. This minimized the unwanted sacrifice of South Korean players giving up their spots to North Koreans.

The KFA also said the player selection process and training could be problems as the Asian Games are less than four months away.

For the women’s side, the KFA also cited teamwork and continuity.

South Korea recently clinched a ticket to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup after finishing fifth at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan.

The KFA said the players who will compete at the Asian Games will advance to the Women’s World Cup in France next year. Although playing together with North Koreans, currently ranked 10th in the latest FIFA rankings, could boost their competitiveness at the Asian Games, the KFA said it will try to stick with the current squad.

“We have to consider continuity and maintaining their teamwork,” the KFA official said. “We would probably see an upgrade in competitiveness when we form a joint team with North Korea, but we first decided to care about the women’s team that is working hard to reach the round of 16 at the World Cup.”

Yonhap