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United Koreans in Japan qualify for the 2020 CONIFA World Football Cup

The United Koreans in Japan football team are one of the 16 sides to have qualified for the CONIFA World Football Cup. Our columnist George Slade examines their history, the CONIFA organisation, and takes a look ahead at this summer's tournament.
(Image courtesy of conifa.org)

Who are the United Koreans in Japan?

Japan has a population of over 855,000 ethnic Koreans, many of whom can trace their roots back to before the Korean War. This puts many of them in an interesting situation as their presence in Japan pre-dates the creation of the modern day states of North and South Korea. Two rival organisations were formed in order to influence the local population, with Chongryon representing the North and Mindan representing the South. Chongryon have historically had the stronger influence due to receiving financial backing of the Pyongyang government, which has been felt on the football pitch.

Several Japan-born Korean footballers have opted to represent the North Korea national football team, including current Suwon FC forward An Byong-jun and former VfL Bochum, 1. FC Köln, and Suwon Bluewings striker Jong Tae-se. However, the influence of Chongryon has waned in recent years, with many Japan-born Koreans deciding to identify with the South, remain neutral, or take Japanese citizenship.

The United Korean Football Association in Japan (UKFAJ) was formed in 2015, in order for there to be a team that all Koreans could identify with regardless of political affiliation. It has its roots in the club side FC Korea, which was founded in 1961 and plays in the Kanto Soccer League Division 1, the fifth tier of Japanese football. FC Korea was considered to be the representative side of Chongryon, but cut ties in 2002 when Kim Jong-il admitted to historic abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

This lead to the club making attempts to appeal to all Koreans, which gave them a greater pool of players and saw them achieve two promotions in a short space of time. In Japan, football teams have to follow very strict criteria in order to even qualify for a chance to compete in the J-League, so FC Korea's progression has stalled for several years. The UKFAJ and its football team were created in order to make up for this lack of progress domestically, so that their players could perform at an international level and raise global awareness of the idea of a united Korea.

What is CONIFA?

CONIFA (Confederation of International Football Associations) is the chief organisation that manages non-FIFA affiliated international football. It was created after the collapse of the N.F.-Board, a similar organisation that existed between 2003-2013. The N.F.-Board organised five editions of its VIVA World Cup between 2006-2012 and some of its members, such as three-time champions Padania in the north of Italy, have now joined CONIFA.

CONIFA was founded in 2013 by Swedish former referee Per-Anders Blind with an aim to create a similar organisation that was largely governed by its members, rather than a controlling board. It is a non-profit organisation that, according to its website, aims to allow the international representation of teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and isolated territories. Unlike FIFA, which is notoriously difficult to join and has strict criteria, CONIFA is largely open to any serious candidate association that wishes to apply. Due to this it has grown rapidly in the last six years, with there now being 59 member associations. This ranges from Europe, which has 30 members, to South America, which only has two members.

Europe's size allows it to be currently the only continent to have its own tournament, the CONIFA European Football Cup, though there are plans to introduce other continental tournaments in the near future. Previously mentioned VIVA World Cup champions Padania have been the strongest team in the European cup, winning the first two of the three editions. There have been three CONIFA World Football Cups so far, with the fourth scheduled for May-June of this year in North Macedonia. All of these tournaments have been men's as there are only six registered women's teams. However, the first CONIFA Women's World Football Cup is tentatively planned for 2021.

The UKJ at the World Cup

The CONIFA World Football Cup has been held every even-numbered year since 2014. Each edition has had a different champion, all from Europe: County of Nice in 2014; Abkhazia in 2016; Kárpátalja in 2018. As the UKFAJ was not formed until 2015, the 2016 tournament in Abkhazia was the first tournament that the United Koreans in Japan were able to enter. They were able to join the competition without having to take part in any qualifying process due to a lack of Asian member associations at the time.

The tournament consisted of 12 teams, with the first round placing everyone in four groups of three teams. The UKJ won their first match 1-0 against Székely Land and lost 3-0 against Kurdistan Region 3-0 in match two. This allowed the UKJ to qualify for the quarter-finals, where they lost on penalties to Northern Cyprus after a 1-1 draw. This was not the end of their tournament, however, as placement rounds for the knocked out teams are played to help determine their ranking. A 2-1 defeat by Sápmi and a victory on penalties after a 1-1 draw against Kurdistan Region, meant that the UKJ finished the tournament in seventh place.

The 2018 CONIFA World Cup was held in London by Barawa, the English community of the Somali diaspora. The number of teams were expanded to 16, and this time the UKJ qualified through the amount of ranking points they had gained from playing friendly matches in the previous years. In a four team group, the UKJ finished third after achieving three draws: goalless against Western Armenia and Kabylia; 1-1 against Panjab. This meant that they failed to reach the quarter-finals and instead went straight into the placement rounds. Across three matches they defeated Tuvalu 5-0, lost 2-0 to Abkhazia, and drew 1-1 to Tibet, which resulted in them placing 11th overall.

The Team

FC Korea has provided the most players for the UKJ team. For example, at the 2018 CONIFA World Cup five members of the 18-man squad came from the Kanto Soccer League side. The majority of the UKJ players have never performed at a higher level than semi-professional, though some higher profile names have been capped by the side. At the 2018 CONIFA World Cup former North Korea U23 international Son Min-chol was included in the squad. The former FC Korea defender had played professionally in India, Thailand and Hong Kong previously, with his three-year spell at I-League club Shillong Lajong being the most successful period of his career.

The most famous player to have appeared for the UKJ is defensive midfielder An Yong-hak, who acted as player-manager at the last World Cup. In a 15 year professional career, the 1978-born player appeared for five Japanese clubs, winning the J2 League with Albirex Niigata and the J1 League and Japanese Super Cup with Kashiwa Reysol. Between 2006-09 he plied his trade in South Korea with Busan IPark and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, winning the K League 1, FA Cup and League Cup with the latter club. He also achieved 40 caps and scored three goals for North Korea, making him one of the most successful Japan-born players to feature for the senior national side. As his last professional contract ended before the previous tournament, it is unclear as to whether An will continue his association with the side this summer, either as a player or in a coaching capacity.

The UKJ are a well-organised and disciplined side that typically play a defensive style. Their 5-0 win over Tuvalu is the only time that they have scored more than one goal in a World Football Cup match. Given that the most goals that they have conceded in a tournament match is three, games that involve the UKJ typically are not the high-scoring affairs that regularly occur in CONIFA matches. They are not one of the tournament favourites, but even the strongest sides will have to work hard to break them down and will be wary of their ability to sneak a goal against any opponents.

The 2020 CONIFA World Football Cup

This year's edition was originally planned to be hosted by Somaliland, which would have been the first time a CONIFA competition was held outside of Europe. However, it was announced in August 2019 that the tournament was to be moved and in December 2019 Skopje in North Macedonia was named as the host city. The UKJ were announced as qualifiers alongside 15 other teams on 4th January 2020. The teams may change before the tournament, as teams have pulled out of previous CONIFA tournaments and been replaced by sides on a reserve list.

Their fellow qualifiers are - Africa: Matabeleland; Kabylia; Darfur; Western Sahara.

Americas: Cascadia (North); Mapuche (South).

Asia: Tamil Eelam; Panjab.

Europe: South Ossetia; Western Armenia; Kernow; Parishes of Jersey; Kárpátalja.

Oceania: Australian First Nations.

Global Ticket: Chagos Islands (their homeland is in the Indian Ocean but their players are largely based in the UK). 

Looking Ahead

The draw for the tournament will take place at the CONIFA Annual General Meeting in the weekend of 25th-26th January. Once the UKJ learn their fate it will be easier to make a prediction as to how they do, however, the tournament attendees are looking strong. Joining the UKJ include the current European Football Cup champion's South Ossetia, and reigning World champion's Kárpátalja. All other sides that have won a CONIFA tournament have failed to qualify, meaning that it will be an open and competitive cup that many teams will think they can win. A favourable draw could make the UKJ start to believe in themselves as well. 

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