World Cup Qualifying: Japan Drawn With South Korea in Politically-Charged Pairing

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Japan will play North Korea in two politically-charged matches after Thursday's draw for the final round of Asian qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup.

South Korea who reached the 2002 World Cup semi-finals were drawn with Saudi Arabia Uzbekistan and Kuwait in Group A.

Iran and Bahrain were drawn in Group B alongside Asian champions Japan and North Korea. The reclusive communist state still harbours deep resentment over Japan's military rule of the Korean peninsula fom 1910 to 1945.

Recently the two governments have clashed over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the issue of Japanese abductees.

A senior North Korean soccer official insisted politics would be put aside when the teams play their opening game in Japan on February 9. The second match will be in Pyongyang in June.

'Politics will not come into it' Jong In-chol vice-president of the North Korean football association said.

'There are no weak teams at this stage but we are optimistic about our chances against anyone.'

SHOCK QUARTER-FINAL

The top two teams from each group go straight through to the 2006 finals in Germany while the two third-placed teams will contest a two-leg playoff.

The winner will then face a further playoff against a team from the CONCACAF zone to win a possible fifth Asian spot at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Though North Korea have achieved little since their shock quarter-final appearance at the 1966 World Cup in England Jong said they would not be overawed.

'Japan Iran and Bahrain are all strong teams' he said. 'But we are very happy with the draw and our players are confident about their chances.'

Japan also put a positive spin on a draw that could pose problems for Japanese fans hoping to travel to the away match.

'We don't know if they will be able to get in' Japan Football Association vice-president Kunishige Kamamoto told Reuters.

'But playing North Korea will not bother the Japanese players they won't feel any pressure. It will be just like playing in China.'

Japan won the Asian Cup this year despite a hostile reception from Chinese fans protesting about Japan's military invasion and brutal occupation of parts of the country from 1931 to 1945.

In Group A South Korea and Saudi Arabia will be firm favourites to qualify automatically ahead of Kuwait and former Soviet republic Uzbekistan.

Full draw for final round of Asian 2006 World Cup qualifiers:

Group A
South Korea
Saudi Arabia
Uzbekistan
Kuwait

Group B
Japan
Iran
Bahrain
North Korea