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SEOUL, South Korea – Rarely has there been so much at stake in an Asian Games football final.
It's North vs. South on the divided Korean peninsula, and it's a game South Korea's players are desperate to win. Not just because it takes place on home soil against their closest neighbor but also because a gold medal would grant them exemption from mandatory military service, which is largely in place because the two countries are still technically at war.
When North Korea and South Korea met in the Asian Games final in 1978, the game ended goalless and the title was shared. While the same scoreline is possible at Incheon on Thursday, especially given the strength of the two teams at the back, there will be no such sharing this time. There has to be a winner, even if it's decided on penalties.
A win for South Korea would mean players such as Park Joo-ho, 27, one of three overage 'wildcard' players that each team in the Under-23 tournament is allowed, would not have to return home from his German club within the next two years for military service. It could also make it easier for the younger players in the squad to earn an overseas move in the future.
"I want to wear that gold medal around my neck," said Lee Jong-ho, scorer of the first goal in South Korea's 2-0 semifinal win over Thailand. "Technically and physically, North Korea is a very good team and we have to study well but we are where we want to be. We have one important game left and we will fight to the end to achieve our dream."
North Korea presents a significant barrier to gold. So far in the tournament, the team has won every game, conceding just one goal and eliminated a talented United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinal and then a highly-fancied Iraq to move into the final.
Yet, South Korea's backline has yet to be breached and the team has eased into the final with the toughest test coming in 1-0 quarterfinal win over rival Japan.
"The players have worked so hard to get here and I am extremely proud of them and we have to finish the job regardless of the opposition," said South Korea coach Lee Kwang-jong, hoping to deliver the country's first football gold at the Asian Games since 1986.
With just 48 hours between the semifinal and the final, Lee believes that the physical condition of the players will be key, saying that's where his team holds the advantage because North Korea went to extra time and "must have used a lot of energy."
The hosts have another big advantage, too. North Korea striker Jong Il Gwan is second in the goalscoring standings with five goals for the tournament but has been suspended for the final after being sent off shortly after scoring the winning goal against Iraq.
"It would be good if the referee was fair in the final," said North Korea coach Yoon Jung-soo, unhappy at the red received by Jong. "It is a shame that Jong can't play but we have players who are mentally and physically ready to come in and replace him."
In recent meetings between football teams from the countries, North Korea has had the upper hand. On Monday, the South Korean women lost the semifinal match to their northern counterparts courtesy of a last-minute goal and in the September final of the Asia Under-16 Championship, the north was victorious.
South Korea's main concern is the fitness of star striker Kim Shin-wook. Kim, a regular member of the senior national team who was one of the country's better performers at a disappointing World Cup in June, has been out injured since the second group game against Saudi Arabia.
Against a well-organized opponent, there are not expected to be many clear goalscoring opportunities and the Ulsan Horangi striker, expected to move to Europe in 2015, could be vital.
"Kim is not going to be at his best," said coach Lee, who explained that Kim would have been introduced from the bench in the second half against Thailand if needed. "Depending on the situation in the game, there is a chance he could play."