Japan's Hana Takahashi, centre, celebrates after scoring the first goal...

Japan's Hana Takahashi, centre, celebrates after scoring the first goal for her side during the final qualifier for the Paris Olympic women's football tournament between Japan and North Korea at the National Stadium Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Tokyo. Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko

TOKYO — Japan defeated North Korea 2-1 on Wednesday to reach the women’s soccer tournament at the upcoming Paris Olympics. But not without a tiny bit of VAR controversy.

The first match in the two-game series to determine one of Asia’s two qualifiers ended in a 0-0 draw on Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Japan had three clear standout players who helped book its tickets for Paris.

Japan won the silver medal in the 2012 Olympics but has never won gold in the women’s tournament. North Korea last competed in women’s soccer at the 2012 Olympics but has never won a medal.

“We want to move forward with the goal of winning a gold medal,” Japan coach Futoshi Ikeda said.

Ikeda coached the Japanese women in the 2023 World Cup and saw them lose in the quarterfinals to Sweden.

Hana Takahashi scored in the 26th, but it was Japanese goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita who scrambled late in the first half to stop a shot that was millimeters from crossing over the line.

Japan's Kiko Seike, left, kicks the ball in an attempt...

Japan's Kiko Seike, left, kicks the ball in an attempt to score as North Korea's goalkeeper Pak Ju Mi dives in to save the ball during the final qualifier for the Paris Olympic women's football tournament at the National Stadium Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Tokyo. Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko

Aoba Fujino put the match away with a header in the 76th to give Japan its second.

North Korea’s Kim Hye Yong scored in the 80th, chipping the ball over keeper Yamashita as she came off her line.

North Korea coach Ri Yu Il wiped away tears, apologizing for the loss to thousands of fans — most reported to be of North Korean descent — who live in Japan but were cheering for the away team.

“To all the supporters who sent us their voices and gave us instructions, we are very sorry we were not able to bring you a good result,” he said speaking in Korean, stopping frequently to gather himself.

Japan's Aoba Fujino, left, and North Korea's Pak Sin Jong...

Japan's Aoba Fujino, left, and North Korea's Pak Sin Jong compete for the ball during the final qualifier for the Paris Olympic women's football tournament at the National Stadium Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Tokyo. Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko

Japan had much of the possession in the first half with North Korea playing the long ball and counterattack. And then Japan withstood North Korean pressure in the first 20 minutes of the second half as the visitors looked for the equalizer.

Takahashi gave Japan a 1-0 lead after her team had much of the early possession. She tapped in a close-range shot after teammate Mina Tanaka’s header was deflected off the crossbar by North Korean goalkeeper Pak Ju Mi, the ball falling for Takahashi to score.

North Korea came close to scoring in 44th when Choe Kum Ok’s shot was stopped on the line by Japanese keeper Yamashita. VAR — video assistant referee — was not being used in the match but television replays seemed to show the entire ball had not crossed the line.

North Korea coach Ri did not say if he thought the ball had crossed the line — although he hinted at it, knowing that incident probably changed the tone of the game.

“I think it would be better if VAR were introduced in order to make fair decisions,” Ri said. “I think it would have been helpful.”

North Korea skipped the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and blamed the pandemic. This angered the Internatinoal Olympic Committee, which also banned the country from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing but has allowed them to return to Paris.

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