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Soccer binds Koreas

Seoul: A friendly football match between North and South Korea on Saturday is expected to add heat to a perceptible thaw in Cold War ties between the two rival nations.

With the blessing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and the support of his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung, the match marks a high-point in sporting ties frozen for more than a decade. It will act as a springboard for the north’s participation in the Asian Games due in the South Korean port city of Pusan in three weeks time.

“We have to win of course,” said an official at the presidential Blue House here. “But it is about more than soccer. A lot of people are taking a particular interest in this match.”

The south and north last played in October 1990 in a two-match series in Pyongyang and Seoul that ended with one victory each.

Since then, fortunes have diverged and the south has gone on to become a leading force in Asian soccer while North Korea has fallen behind.

Paradoxically, it was the north who first made an impact in international soccer, reaching the last eight in the 1966 World Cup in England and burying Italy along the way.

More recently, the successes have all belonged to the south, culminating in the run to the semi-finals of the World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan.

The matches now are unlikely to be one-sided, however. The teams are essentially under-23 sides preparing for the soccer tournament at the Asian Games. The south were planning to field few of the World Cup 2002 stars but that changed when the north submitted their squad on Tuesday and included a handful of wild cards — over age players legally permitted to play.

Park Hang-seo, the South Korean coach who replaced Guus Hiddink, was sufficiently impressed to add five World Cup wild cards to the squad.

Park says he is impressed with the recent form of the north, following a 3-1 win last week over Thailand in Pyongyang and victory in a four-nation tournament in Shanghai earlier this year.

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