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North Korea-Japan match "to be referred to FIFA" will not be held on Sept. 26...forfeiture possible

The North Korea-Japan match has been canceled after North Korea abruptly canceled its home game. The ball is now in the court of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced on its official website on March 22 (KST) that "the Group B match between North Korea and Japan in the second qualifying round of the 2026 FIFA Confederations Cup North America, Asia, scheduled to be played on March 26 will not be played as scheduled due to unforeseen circumstances."

No specific reason was given. "This decision was taken in consultation with FIFA and relevant stakeholders after being informed by the North Korean Football Association on Tuesday of the need to move the match to a neutral venue due to unavoidable circumstances," the AFC said. "The matter will now be referred to the relevant FIFA committees. We will provide further updates in due course."

Originally, the match was scheduled to take place at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang on the 26th. However, there was a problem when the North Koreans suddenly announced that they would not be able to host the home game.

They didn't even give an exact reason. North Korea's head coach Shin Young-nam was also reticent, saying at a press conference after the team's 0-1 loss to Japan on Nov. 21, "I don't want to talk about the future at this time."

According to Japanese media, North Korea cited measures to prevent the spread of severe hemolytic streptococcal disease (STSS), which has been on the rise in Japan. However, there is a lot of confusion because the STSS outbreak in Japan is not that serious.

Unexpected variables threw Japan into disarray. The team had planned to immediately travel to Beijing, China, on the 22nd and then fly to North Korea, but that all fell through. For now, the team is staying in Japan and training.

The Japanese players are handling the situation calmly. According to Japan's Goal.com, veteran fullback Yumo Nagatomo said, "The mindset is the same. No matter where we play, we just have to look ahead again, including today's challenges," while Takumi Minamino said, "This is the first time something like this has happened. But we knew it was possible," said Takumi Minamino, who added, "Playing in Pyongyang will probably be the most difficult."

Japan's head coach Hajime Moriyasu said, "We just have to accept the reality and prepare as best we can. I don't know where and how we will play in the future, but we will focus on the recovery of the tired players and their physical condition to prepare for the next match."

The AFC had initially pushed for a neutral venue. "Normally, it's the responsibility of the host country to choose a neutral site," secretary general Dato' Windsor John told AFP on Wednesday. But if they are unable to do so, the AFC will select a neutral site. The match will be played as scheduled."

In the end, however, the match will not be played on the 26th. Depending on FIFA's decision, the match could be postponed to the next A-Match period in June or North Korea could be awarded a forfeit. Japanese media outlets, such as Sanking, are weighing in on the possibility of a forfeit, saying that it would be difficult to play another match in June.

North Korea's reckless behavior has caused problems not only for Japan, but also for the AFC and FIFA. This isn't the first time North Korean soccer has caused a stir. Late last month, North Korea was scheduled to play Japan at home in the final Asian qualifying match for the Paris 2024 Olympic women's soccer tournament, but the match was moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after Pyongyang announced it would not be able to host the event.

Meanwhile, Japan was the laughing stock in the third match of the second qualifying round between North Korea and Japan in Tokyo, Japan, on June 21. Ao Tanaka's goal in the second minute of the first half gave Japan a 1-0 victory. Japan moved to the top of Group B with three wins from three games (9 points), while North Korea remained in third place with one win and two losses (3 points).