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However, games between Japan and North Korea are always closely fought. Their last three meetings ended with one win each and a draw; of the last 15 games, Japan has won six while North Korea has won five.

In Pyongyang, Dr. Ri Tong Gyu, a researcher at North Korea’s Institute of Physical Culture under the Academy of Sports Sciences, told the state-run Korean Central News Agency he expected a “hot match” Tuesday.

“I am sure that the DPRK footballers will score good results in the upcoming matches if they fully display their mental and physical power with efficient teamwork,” he told KCNA. DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.

For Jong and three fellow Japanese-born teammates, the game will be an interesting test of their loyalty, pitting the country of their birth, Japan, against the nation they pledge allegiance to: North Korea. The Japanese side, meanwhile, includes Tadanari Lee, a fourth-generation South Korean born in Tokyo.

Japan is home to some 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them descendants of those who moved, by force or for work, to Japan during the colonial occupation. Ethnic Koreans born in Japan are automatically assigned South Korean citizenship but have the option of changing their loyalty to North Korea, as many who grow up in pro-North Korean communities do.

When Jong, An Yong Hak, Ryang Yong Gi and Kim Song Gi take the pitch Tuesday for North Korea, scores of fans from their ethnic Korean community will be cheering in Japan.

In Pyongyang, tickets to the match at 50,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium _ a stone’s throw from the spot where Kim, then an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, made his triumphant return from exile after Japan’s defeat in World War II _ will no doubt be sold out.

In communist North Korea, tickets are allocated based on work unit, but it’s unclear how the lucky attendees are selected. It is believed that the government and military elite are frequently offered perks unavailable to ordinary citizens. Foreigners pay anywhere from $27 to $137 for seats.

In a sports-crazed country, football is clearly the most popular. And, despite economic hardships, people make time both to play and watch games.

“A soccer hurricane is sweeping the whole country,” the Pyongyang Times declared.

In the alleyways and dirt fields off the main streets, boys kick footballs in the autumn sunshine. The most promising among them may be plucked from playgrounds for training at an early age. In this country, where only the elite can travel overseas, top players from both the men’s and women’s teams are treated like celebrities.

At last month’s World Cup qualifier between North Korea and Uzbekistan, Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Stadium was packed. The only empty seats were in the section reserved for foreigners, a motley group of diplomats and tourists, some holding North Korean flags.

The fans were a mix of neatly dressed military officers and men in workaday suits. The women’s team also turned out in red tracksuits. A few rows behind them, a girl in a baseball cap turned backward sat at the edge of her seat, eyes fixed on the game.

“Strike! Strike” the crowed implored in Korean as the ball neared the Uzbekistan goal. One phrase, “Shoot! Shoot!” they cried in English.

A hush fell over the stadium when the game ended 1-0 for Uzbekistan, the crowd rising to its feet and jostling for the exits.

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