A trip to Pyonyang is always going to be a difficult fixture. I can’t help but think that Japan let the atmosphere affect them a little too much though…
So, Alberto Zaccheroni’s unbeaten run as manager of Japan ended at 16 games.
As well as losing such a proud record the Samurai Blue also surrendered their title as Unofficial World Champions in the process – meaning that the North Koreans can now, justifiably (sort of), claim to be the best team in the world.
The run had to come to an end sometime, and the fact that it did so in the peculiar environment of the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang is not actually so surprising.
The game was a dead rubber, with Japan assured of their passage to the next stage of qualification while North Korea had already become the first team to appear at the 2010 World Cup finals to be eliminated from the 2014 competition.
With that in mind Alberto Zaccheroni was able to experiment a little, and went into the game minus seven regular starters (including the injured Keisuke Honda).
While the outcome of the match wasn’t important, the Italian would still have been paying close attention to how his back-up players performed in such hostile surroundings though, and will certainly have taken note of several things.
Chief among them was the fact that the side seemed to be lacking in guts a little, and they were clearly affected by the intimidating atmosphere created by the fervent home support. From the moment that Kimigayo was vehemently booed the players, used to being pampered in their comfortable lives outside the hermit kingdom, struggled to focus on their game and were unable to build any kind of rhythm in an incredibly stop-start opening 15 minutes.
North Korea are a very physical outfit and didn’t hold back in any of their challenges, but while Zac suggested after the game that they had no need to worry about suspensions with their qualification campaign already over, that seemed to me like something of a weak excuse.
Some of the tackles were a little over-zealous but very few, if any, were especially dangerous, and if the Japanese players had matched their opponents for desire in the challenge then their hosts may well have backed down a little.
That didn’t happen though and, having realised that their combative tactics were causing Japan to retreat further into their shell, the North Koreans kept up their approach. This added further fuel to the home fans’ enthusiastic support and made Japan’s job even more difficult.
To an extent, the Japanese players’ trepidation was understandable, and even watching on TV I was fascinated by the scenes inside the stadium.
As well as the intricate card displays in the main stand grabbing my attention I was intrigued by the appearance and behaviour of the North Korean supporters.
With everybody dressed in uniforms or simple, prim-and-proper button-up shirts, and sporting conservative, no-nonsense hairstyles it reminded me a little of archive footage of English football fans from the 60s.
The impression of travelling back in time was added to by their behaviour after the goal, with the excited clapping and broad smiles also reminiscent of a bygone era.
These finer points will almost certainly have passed the players by, but the palpable desire of everybody in the stadium to beat Japan was clear for all to see. The celebrations after the final whistle drove home just how much more the North Koreans wanted the win than their opponents, as did the fact that the big screen behind the goal did not deviate from the score even as the supporters finally made their way to the exits.
It is said that you learn more in defeat than victory, and Zac will also now be aware of the fact that the team needs to improve on its travels. They may be able to perform in the exhibition-match niceness of the Kirin Cup and lambs-to-the-slaughter visits of the likes of Tajikistan, but when they are away from home the side looks less comfortable.
The unique atmosphere of Pyongyang is, of course, not going to be experienced anywhere else in the world, and there is no need to panic.
Tricky away fixtures are sure to be on the cards in the next round of qualifiers as well though, and lessons can and should be learned from this disappointment before they come around.