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Japan facing uphill struggle as World Cup decision looms

by Andrew Mckirdy

Thursday marks the end of a long and vicious battle for hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, but Japan will look to Zurich more in hope than expectation of winning the latter.

The destination of two tournaments will be decided simultaneously for the first time, with a European nation guaranteed the 2018 edition and Japan competing with Qatar, the U.S., Australia and 2002 sparring partner South Korea for the right to organize the event in 2022.

The bidding process has been extraordinarily bloody. Two FIFA executive committee members have been suspended following an English newspaper expose of vote-selling, allegations of collusion have been rife, and vendettas, power games and politicking have all been to the fore as the nine hopefuls clamber over each other to reach the prize.

Amid the scandal, Japan has stayed above the fray. No allegations of wrongdoing have attached themselves to either the bid or executive committee member Junji Ogura, but then Japan has hardly been making headlines of any kind and may yet pay the price for its low-key approach.

The wounded ill-feeling that England must now overcome in the wake of its media’s investigations, however, highlights the political and personal nature of the vote. Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter admitted this week that committee members are “human beings” with “ideas other than those which are available in the documents,” and whims and agendas are sure to play their part in deciding the winners.

Several committee members are said to be still undecided, and Ogura this week stressed the importance of the 30-minute presentations that form the bidding nations’ parting shots. It seems ludicrous to think that last-minute razzmatazz can tip the balance after so long laying the groundwork, but the planned appearances of David Beckham, Prince William and Bill Clinton in Zurich suggest otherwise.

Japan has no such ace up its sleeve, but it does have a solid background in FIFA diplomacy. Ogura has been on the executive committee long enough to know which buttons to press, and his experience from 2002 should also come in handy.

But that is also where Japan’s bid looks likeliest to fall down. Above all the technological innovations, the transport infrastructure and the state-of-the-art stadiums, there seems to be a pervading sense that this is just not Japan’s time. No matter how strongly the bid leaders feel the country was short-changed by cohosting in 2002, the rest of the world believes it is someone else’s turn.

Concerns over revenue, government backing and time-zone inconvenience also give voters plenty of excuses to turn their attentions elsewhere, but there may still be a way in for Japan.

The decision process is not just a single count of votes, but involves several rounds where bids are eliminated one by one. This opens up the possibility of the favorites being split so far apart that a dark horse sneaks through the middle, and Japan will be looking to fill that role.

For a bid that has largely failed to fire the imagination, it may be the only hope.