SEOUL — The waiting is finally over. Four years after France lifted the World Cup in Paris, soccer’s biggest event has kicked off again in South Korea and will end 64 games later in Yokohama with the best team in the world lifting the famous gold trophy.
After months of wrangling and political in-fighting within FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, combined with the tensions and complications that jointly hosting the tournament were bound to throw up, the feeling is one of relief, summed up by the Joong Ang Ilbo’s Page 1 headline Friday morning, “Let the games begin!”
At 8:30 Friday evening, holder France opened the tournament by taking on Senegal, making its World Cup debut, before a global audience estimated at 500 million in 200 countries and territories.
As the first World Cup in Asia and the first to be jointly hosted, the tournament has a lot to live up to. But four years of planning have given South Korea and Japan state-of-the-art stadiums, comprehensive media coverage for those not fortunate enough to be at the games themselves as well as all the infrastructure that fans traveling to the host countries will need to see their teams in action.
For three hours prior to the opening ceremony, as thousands filed into the stadium, images of football fans from around the world waving their flags were beamed onto huge TV screens. The green, yellow and red of Senegal was beside the French tricolor, the Stars and Stripes, as well as Danish, Chinese and Mexican flags. There was even a proud Welsh dragon high up on one side of the stadium.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, in his welcoming message, pronounced the World Cup a “global festivity inspiring the world with peace, harmony and hope for the future.”
Kim welcomed the crowds at the stadium and people watching on TV around the world, saying, “For the next one month, football fans gathered here and nearly all the 6 billion people in the world will be watching the most exciting games played by the most accomplished players of the world.
“Through these football matches, humanity will become one, transcending racial, cultural, ideological and religious differences.
“Indeed, I hope that everyone in the world will be able to reconfirm the cherished values of world peace, security and prosperity for all,” he said.
The tournament takes on an added significance, he said, because it is kicking off in the last divided country in the world.
The opening game between defending champion France and Senegal, at the 64,677-seat Seoul World Cup Stadium, was preceded by a spectacular 40-minute opening ceremony that started with the flags of the 32 nations competing being carried into the stadium to the sounds of a traditional percussion band.
After an opening address by FIFA President Sepp Blatter and a comment from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the South Korean leader declared the tournament open. Prince Takamado and Princess Hisako represented Japan’s Imperial Family at the ceremony, sitting alongside Xanana Gusmao, president of newly independent East Timor, and five other heads of state.
Koizumi reiterated the South Korean president’s hopes, saying, “I hope that the emotion and excitement of the football games brings everyone together, regardless of country, language or religion.”
“I wish good luck to all the 32 participating teams — and hope to see you again at the final in Yokohama,” he said.
The dignitaries’ speeches were followed by traditional “soojaechun” music and a performance modified from an ancient royal dance.
Spotlights then picked out paper boats as they were transformed into a huge drum composed of 32 triangles, representing the teams taking part, and designed to highlight the “yearning for communication and understanding in the past as well as the present.”
The spirit of global harmony was emphasized when huge streamers fell from the roof of the stadium and were passed from hand to hand among the crowd to form a colorful woven mesh. The characters for “peace forever” appeared on the stadium’s two vast TV screens and the entire stadium seemed to move in unison as the crowd waved 64,677 glowing tubes.
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