Koreas to meet on soccer field at East Asian Championship

North Korean men's national soccer team head coach Jorn Andersen of Norway is greets by North Korea residents in Japan upon arrival at Haneda international airport in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. North Korean women’s and men’s national soccer teams arrived in Tokyo as exception to Japan’s entry ban as part of ongoing sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development. North Korea is competing against Japan, China and South Korea in the upcoming E-1 Football Championship held in Japan. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
North Korean women's national soccer team members, in red, wave upon arrival at Haneda international airport in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. North Korean women’s and men’s national soccer teams arrived in Tokyo as exception to Japan’s entry ban as part of ongoing sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development. North Korea is competing against Japan, China and South Korea in the upcoming E-1 Football Championship held in Japan. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
North Korean men's national soccer team members are welcomed with their national flags waved upon arrival at Haneda international airport in Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. North Korean women’s and men’s national soccer teams arrived in Tokyo as exception to Japan’s entry ban as part of ongoing sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development. North Korea is competing against Japan, China and South Korea in the upcoming E-1 Football Championship held in Japan. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

The East Asian Championship featuring Japan, China and the two Koreas comes at a time of serious tensions in the region, but there is unlikely to be much in the way of soccer diplomacy when the tournament kicks off on Saturday in Tokyo.

Amid a backdrop of North Korea performing a series of missile tests in recent months and South Korea and the United States undertaking military exercises, Korea observers are not expecting this tournament to produce the kind of statement seen at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

"We are past the age of breakthroughs in sport such as the two Korean teams marching together at the opening ceremony at the Olympics," Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, told The Associated Press.

There had been concerns about whether or not North Korea would participate because it doesn't have diplomatic relations with Japan. But the squad, which won a qualifying tournament for a spot at the four-team tournament, arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday after collecting special visas at the Japanese embassy in Beijing.

"It is encouraging that it is going ahead at all but the overall crisis is severe and is not getting better," Foster-Carter added. "All you can hope is that it brings a little bit of normality into the situation but I wouldn't expect anything to change because of these games."

On the field, while the North Korean soccer hierarchy may see the biennial tournament as a chance for some vital international experience and prestige, the Japanese and South Korean squads have different priorities.

The two countries see the Dec. 9-16 tournament as an important part of preparations for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Japan has been drawn with Poland, Senegal and Colombia, while South Korea has been grouped with Germany, Sweden and Mexico.

With the European season in full swing and clubs not obliged to release their South Korea and Japanese players, the tournament offers opportunities for home-based players to push for spots in the World Cup squad.

South Korea, winner in 2015, will be without star attacker Son Heung-min who has been in fine form with five goals in the last six games for Tottenham in the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.

South Korea kicks off against China on Saturday, and coach Shin Tae-yong is hoping to find a partner for Son in attack in future tournaments.

"This time, I want to think about who should be playing next to Son and how we should form the attacking unit without Son," Shin said. "When I was an assistant coach in 2015, I didn't consider the tournament important, but now it's different because this is a test ahead of the World Cup.

"In particular, Japan and our team are both going to compete at the World Cup, so we need to earn both results and experience from this tournament."

Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic is not only preparing for the World Cup, but hoping to erase memories of Japan's last-place finish in the 2015 tournament.

"We're playing at home so our aim has to be to win the title," Vahilhodzic said. "This is part of our preparations for next year, so we have to play with ambition."

China is, for the first time, using the tournament as a chance to give some younger players a chance of first team participation and prepare for the Asian under-23 championship in January.

"The team now is undergoing a change between generations," coach Marcello Lippi said. "This is a chance to give some younger players some good experience."

The women's tournament features the same teams and kicks off Friday.

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