Japan beat North Korea 1-0 Saturday in the East Asian Championship amid serious tensions between the two nations.
There were doubts the game could even go ahead against such a backdrop, with North Korean nationals currently banned from entering Japan as part of the sanctions against Pyongyang.
Special visas were issued at the Japanese embassy in Beijing earlier in the week.
Yosuke Ideguchi scored in injury time to deliver hosts Japan victory in front of more than 20,000 fans, including pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who chanted and waved North Korean flags.
The championship features Japan, China, North Korea and South Korea. It comes amid a backdrop of North Korea performing a series of missile tests in recent months and South Korea and the United States undertaking military exercises.
Kim Song Gi, an ethnic Korean from Japan who plays for North Korea, had told Reuters this week that he would welcome boos as a source of motivation but the fans were respectful of their opponents during player introductions, national anthems and throughout the game.
“Political affairs are irrelevant, it is player against player for sports, and then country against country (for politics),” said Han Mi Hwi, a 20-year-old North Korean university student living in Japan.
“So even though Japan and the US are bashing North Korea for their actions, that is irrelevant, and I think we should look at who wins and who loses fairly.”
North Koreans are not allowed to travel to Japan under sanctions in place over Pyongyang’s weapons program but there are many who were born and live in Japan under permanent resident status.
The North Korean players received a travel exception.
Japan got an injury-time goal to win in their first match of the final round of the championship which runs until Dec. 16.
Japan’s head coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, said that there were tensions between countries in any region and that the athletes were not there for politics but rather to “share friendship, brotherhood and joy”.
“I’m very proud to be part of the family of sport. It promotes the best thing in the society we’re living in, in a completely crazy world,” he said.
“That’s the best response we can give to the politicians.”