By Yoo Jee-ho
DOHA, Dec. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea versus Japan in a FIFA World Cup knockout match?
It would be a dream for fans of the two longtime and oft-bitter sporting rivals. It has never happened before but there is a possibility, however slim, of that finally materializing this year in Qatar.
If the two countries both win their round of 16 matches on Monday, they will then clash in the quarterfinals on Friday.
South Korea and Japan have never faced each other in any World Cup match. Per FIFA rules, no two countries from the same continent, with the exception of Europe, may be drawn into the same group. Also, this is only the third time that both South Korea and Japan are in the knockout round together, and the first time they are on the same side of the bracket.
In both 2002 and 2010, they could only have met either in the final or the third place match.
In Qatar, Japan reached the knockout round first on Thursday, clinching the top spot in Group E with a 2-1 victory over Spain. Before that, Japan defeated Germany 2-1.
South Korea joined their rivals on Friday, thanks to a 2-1 victory over Portugal that secured the No. 2 seed in Group H. South Korea and Uruguay, 2-0 winners of Ghana the same day, finished tied at four points and a goal difference of zero, but South Korea advanced thanks to a 4-2 edge in goals scored, the second tiebreak category.
South Korea will now face Brazil, world No. 1, five-time champions and one of the top pretournament title favorites. This is South Korea's third trip to the knockouts and first since 2010.
Japan will take on Croatia, world No. 11 and runners-up to France at the 2018 World Cup. Japan will be playing in the knockouts for the fourth time, and they are the first Asian team to reach the last 16 in consecutive tournaments.
South Korea have had 42 wins, 23 draws and 16 losses against Japan, but Japan have dominated recent proceedings, winning each of the two most recent matches by 3-0. Dating back to October 2010, South Korea have only beaten Japan twice in their last nine meetings, with three draws and four losses.
There are a few friends and former club teammates among Korean and Japanese players. After beating Portugal, South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in said he'd been in touch with his former RCD Mallorca teammate from Japan, Takefusa Kubo. Lee missed Japan's victory on Thursday night because he had to go to sleep early but after learning of the news, he wanted to congratulate his fellow 21-year-old.
"I reached out to him after seeing the score in the morning, and he said, 'You guys should win today and let's meet in the quarterfinals,'" Lee said.
Lee then added with a smile, "This didn't come from me. I didn't say those words."
Following Japan's win over Germany on Nov. 23, Kubo told South Korean reporters that Lee had wished him good luck for that game, and that he would do the same for Lee, calling the South Korean player "one of my best friends in football."
Whether that friendship will be put to a test in a World Cup knockout match remains to be seen. But Lee said the team's collective confidence was running high in light of the stunning win over Portugal.
"Obviously, Brazil will be tough to handle. But I think we will have a chance to win if we execute everything we've prepared for," Lee said. "We're ready to do our best on the field. I hope our fans will continue to be behind us."
Should both South Korea and Japan win Monday, their quarterfinal match will be played at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha. South Korea played all three group matches there.