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Steady Japan works balancing act

by Andrew Mckirdy

With co-hosting in 2002 still fresh in the memory, Japan’s bid to stage the World Cup for a second time in 2022 was always going to be a hard sell.

A leadership change on the bid committee has muddied the waters further, but comments made by FIFA’s visiting inspection team last week served as a reminder of what Japan has in its favor.

Harold Mayne-Nicholls, head of the Chilean F.A. and the man overseeing site visits on behalf of world soccer’s governing body, called Japan’s bid “a very balanced product” that “mixes football traditions with modern stadiums, new technology and environmental projects integrated with the world.”

If that sounded like being damned with faint praise — solid rather than spectacular for a tournament expected to capture the world’s imagination — Japan should consider the context.

FIFA is currently reaping the fruit of a grand project conceived last decade to take the World Cup beyond the most developed nations. South Africa has just hosted the event on African soil for the first time, with Brazil next up in 2014.

But while South African success has justified FIFA’s vision, it did not come easy. Concerns over stadiums, transport, crime and accommodation hung heavy over the tournament until the first ball was kicked, and Brazil’s recent admission that it is unsure whether Sao Paulo will host games suggests the next four years will be another rough ride.

FIFA may consider this a small price for the rewards of expansion, but it must also yearn for safe reliability. Among the countries bidding for 2022, few can match Japan on that score.

With prior experience of hosting the event, superb infrastructure and a small enough area to comfortably visit any venue, only Japan’s remoteness from the rest of the world stops it from being the perfect host nation.

Crucially, the bid makes a point of addressing this. Japan presents itself not as a unique country with exotic traditions, but as an international hub with the organizational experience and technological knowhow to bring the world together.

The main character in the bid DVD is not Japanese, but an African boy. Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic, a Serbian, appears as the face of Japanese soccer.

In short, raked pebble gardens are out, global unity is in. Japan emphasizes the strength of its foundations by stripping away its own identity, and although the technology the bid trumpets may or may not be delivered, the fact that only one new stadium is required speaks loudest.

The U.S., of course, is another safe pair of hands, and if FIFA decides to opt for experience over the new ground of Qatar and Australia, Japan may yet lose out to the lure of the dollar.

The effects of Junji Ogura replacing Motoaki Inukai as JFA president and bid chairman last weekend also remain to be seen, and there will be much political maneuvering done before the decision is made on Dec. 2.

One thing for sure, however, is that FIFA knows Japan can handle the task.