Bryan KayComment

RESORTING TO THE UNTHINKABLE

Bryan KayComment

Bryan Kay reports on a worrying banner seen in a recent Asian Champions League tie.

Having lost by a crushing 6-1 scoreline that meant a spectacular crash out of the Asian Champions League, Cerezo Osaka could have been forgiven for believing things could not get much worse. They had gone into the second-leg game in late September away to South Korean side Jeonbuk Motors with a 4-3 advantage from the first leg in Japan rightfully confident of progressing.

Cerezo had clawed their way back from a losing position three times in Osaka, and, just days before heading to Jeonbuk's Jeonju World Cup Stadium in South Korea, they had thumped Montedio Yamagata 6-0 in the J1 League. But if the players hadn't noticed during the bruising second-leg encounter, they quickly became aware afterward that even worse events had been unfolding among the home fans in the ground's viewing galleries.

Apparently angered by their team's reversal in the first leg of the quarter-final tie, a section of the Jeonbuk faithful had resorted to the unthinkable by unfurling a banner, written in Japanese, emblazoned with the disgraceful words: "Let's celebrate Japan's big earthquake."

The incident sparked outrage. The Japanese, whose country suffered massive loss of life and property after a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March, were deeply insulted. Cerezo complained to both the Asian Football Confederation and Jeonbuk.

Jeonbuk officials and the wider South Korean public were duly embarrassed on the international stage as news of the banner's message made headlines around the world. It also acted to sully the efforts made by the South Korean government and individual citizens, who earlier this year put their historically tense relationship with their near neighbours to one side, to rally to the Japanese cause as the magnitude of the natural disaster became clear.

The banner incident, though, is not the first time diplomacy has been found wanting when South Koreans and Japanese have met in the football arena.

The last outbreak occurred during an Asian Cup match in January. Though usually confined to the political sphere, lingering bitterness over the Korean peninsula's 40 years as a Japanese colony rose to the surface when the South Korean national team contested their semi-final tie with Japan in the Qatari heat.

The incident involved the Glasgow Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yeung, who was accused of using his face to pull a "monkey" gesture, a reportedly well-known racially-motivated slur used by South Koreans to mock Japanese. On that occasion, the Japanese took a more muted approach, appearing to accept Ki's explanation that it was not aimed at their country but Scottish football fans, who it was claimed had previously made "monkey noises" in his direction while he was playing for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League.

But it's not just South Korea. During the 2004 Asian Cup in China, elements of the Chinese support were accused of abusing Japanese fans and attacking the Japan national team's bus. That, too, was linked to the age of the Japanese empire, which occupied China during the Second World War.

In the end, the autumn of 2011 proved to be a rather inauspicious month for South Korean football in particular. Mid-October, the Asian Champions League semi-final first leg between the K-League's Suwon Bluewings and Al Sadd of Qatar descended into mayhem as players and coaches from both teams engaged in a mass brawl after visitors Al Sadd scored a controversial second goal while Suwon players were tending to an injured teammate. The melee was sparked, according to reports, after a fan invaded the pitch.

The same day, Lee Soo-Cheol, coach of the country's professional military team Sangju Sangmu, was found dead in an apparent suicide linked locally to a match-fixing scandal that plunged the K-League into chaos earlier in the season. His death was the second apparent suicide related to the rigging crisis after a lower league player was found dead shortly after allegations started to come to light just before the start of the summer.

Then, toward the end of October, a K-League match between Jeju United and Incheon United witnessed another example of the creeping signs of fan disorder when rival fans got involved in a scuffle in the viewing galleries. Jeju, the home team, played the incident down as "minor", but it merely served to place a rather uneasy full-stop to a season-to-forget as the K-League reached its final stages.

Cerezo president Nobuyoshi Fujita, meanwhile, branded those behind the Jeonju incident as "heartless", though, mercifully, he was at pains to draw flak away from the majority of the crowd, insisting: "not all of Jeonbuk's supporters are like that. However, with something (like that) being said about our country we felt we had to make a complaint." 

Jeonbuk were pressed into public relations mode, apologizing profusely and banning one fan, apparently the chief culprit, for 10 years. The fan himself issued a grovelling retraction. "It was foolish behaviour," the unnamed 30-year-old was quoted as saying by the South Korean news agency Yonhap. "I wholeheartedly apologize to the people of Japan and South Korean soccer fans."

Alas, it was not enough to permit him the chance of witnessing the next installment in what, until that point, had been a quite successful season for his team: the K-League leaders and on the cusp of an Asian Champions League final place. Worse, his team went on to clinch top spot in the K-League toward the end of October as well as reach said Champions League final, where they will meet Qatar's Al Sadd this Saturday. 

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