SEOUL — On a muddy pitch in Hamhung, his North Korean hometown, Jung De-han practiced his goal-scoring and tackling skills day in and day out in hopes of emulating Diego Maradona’s rise from poverty to international soccer stardom.

As a 15-year-old, he cheered when North Korea played in the 2010 World Cup. He dreamed of joining his heroes on the world stage, where, he said, he would ditch his dirty jersey and ripped sneakers for their red uniforms.

Two years later, he fled North Korea for a new life in the South.

On Tuesday, Jung, who trains in a Nike jersey and Adidas cleats with an amateur club, plans to root for his adopted home as the two Koreas face off in a qualifier match in Pyongyang for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

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“It’s more than just a ballgame; it’s a metaphor for the Korean War,” he said.

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The neighbors — at once bitter enemies and long-lost brethren — have contested soccer games in the past. But political sensitivities have prevented the South Korean men’s national team from playing in North Korea since 1990, when the two sides met for a friendly in Pyongyang for the first time since the peninsula’s division.

“It was a nervous arrival in unknown territory, and Pyongyang citizens carried us on their shoulders from the airport,” said Kim Joo-sung, the former South Korean midfielder who scored the first goal in that match. North Korea won, 2-1, but Kim said he had no regrets because his team wanted “to give peace a chance.”

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This week’s game takes place as tensions rise once again on the peninsula, giving the encounter added gravity.

Pyongyang resumed weapons testing in July amid a deadlock in nuclear talks with Washington. And North Korea has suspended virtually all diplomatic exchanges with the South in recent months. It has not responded to Seoul’s calls to discuss a live broadcast of the game and how or whether to allow South Korean spectators to enter North Korea for the match, South Korean soccer officials said.

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As of Friday, it was not clear whether fans in South Korea would be able to watch the game live, and the country’s soccer authorities conceded that it might not be possible.

No matter the political complexities, the South Korean team is gearing up for a serious competition against its northern neighbor to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

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Paulo Bento, South Korea’s head coach, told reporters in late September that he “tries to understand what feelings South Korean people have toward this match.” But, he added, “the important thing is to concentrate on the game and earn points.”

South Korea’s 25-member squad, which includes top athletes who compete in the English Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga, convened in recent days to train for the match.

“We are not traveling [to Pyongyang] for leisure,” captain Son Heung-min, who also plays for the Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, told reporters Oct. 7. “Our only focus is the faceoff itself.”

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Compared with the South’s globe-trotting stars, most of the North Korean players are unknown outside of their domestic league. Still, they train with each other day-to-day and could prove to be stronger as a team than their rivals, said Kim Kyung-sung, head of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association.

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“South Korean players might excel in personal skills, but the North Korean brothers will strike back with ironclad teamwork,” he said.

North Korea’s captain is 26-year-old Jong Il Gwan, whose goals gave North Korea a 2-0 win in its first Asian qualifier match against Lebanon on Sept. 5. With a subsequent 1-0 win over Sri Lanka, North Korea rose to the top of its qualifying group.

The North Korean team hasn’t lost at Kim Il Sung Stadium since 2005, when it failed to qualify for the World Cup in a match against Iran and angry North Korean fans hurled bottles and cans at referees and the Iranian players.

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It remains to be seen whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will attend Tuesday, though he has been to events there before.

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“If Kim Jong Un comes to see the match, the North Koreans will play do-or-die-soccer to win, as the triumph will be attributed to the leader’s glory,” said Kim Kyung-sung.

The match holds significance beyond the field for North Korea. Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has made unprecedented investment to raise the country’s soccer profile and compete internationally.

In 2013, North Korea sent a group of handpicked young talent to an academy in Italy; the same year, it established the Pyongyang International Football School to train hundreds of aspiring players. In 2016, the men’s national team hired Norwegian-born footballer Jorn Andersen as coach. (He later left, saying economic hardships made it impossible to stay in the country.)

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Antonio Razzi, a former senator in Italy who helped connect young North Korean footballers to ISM Academy in Corciano, said that Kim Jong Un likes soccer and that during the young leader’s formative years in Switzerland, Kim watched Inter Milan games at San Siro Stadium.

Among the men Razzi connected to the academy is Han Kwang Song, who recently signed with Juventus’s under-23 team and who has been on the North Korean team’s roster for the World Cup qualifiers. Razzi said that Han’s presence at the Italian club was “a nice step forward for peace” and that he plans to bring a Juventus jersey to Kim Jong Un.

As for the prospect of the match Tuesday leading to political breakthroughs off the field, Kim Kyung-sung pointed to the success of the 2018 Winter Olympics in helping to break the ice between North and South Korea.

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“This soccer match can open up a dialogue for peaceful resolution of North Korean nuclear tension, just like how the Olympic truce in PyeongChang led to the historic inter-Korean summit last year,” he said.

Jung, the North Korean defector, said that although he will support the South Korean team, he hopes one day to return to Hamhung and play soccer with his former teammates.

“I want to kick balls with them and see how much we have grown,” he said.

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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