Can Japan and South Korea work together to put on the 2002 World Cup?

Knowing their history, nothing could seem more unlikely. Many Japanese look down on South Koreans; many South Koreans hate Japan.

But these are modern times. Both countries have democracies, both have suffered economic depression after the boom years of the late ’80s and early ’90s, both have a younger generation that neither knows nor cares much about the past, and both countries are about to host the World Cup. This is not a time to settle old scores.

Although you wouldn’t know it.

“I think in Korea they don’t want to know that Japan is cohosting and in Japan they don’t want to know Korea is cohosting,” stated Belgian Rene Desayere, one of only a handful of men to manage teams in both the Korean and Japanese football leagues.

It was only after FIFA’s momentous decision in 1996 that the rest of the world began learning how much the two countries disliked and distrusted each other. But within the football world, the intensity of the campaign the two countries engaged in to get the World Cup left no one in any doubt as to how the countries felt about each other.

Indeed, some believe that South Korea’s entry into the fray was little more than a thinly disguised gesture to spite Japan. No way was South Korea going to sit by and let Japan help itself to a whopping portion of sporting glory — and a free entry into the World Cup for which it had yet to qualify (Japan finally made it to France in 1998, where it lost all three games).

“It was a natural consequence of us putting a bid in,” Japan Football Association Vice President Kunishige Kamamoto stated. “If we were going to do it, it’s obvious the Koreans would want to get involved.”

Japan’s hero at the Mexico Olympics — he scored the goals that earned Japan the bronze medal — who was his country’s most outspoken critic of South Korea during the bid campaign, added: “It’s the biggest event in soccer, so it was always likely to happen.”

South Korea was convinced that it had the moral upper hand where football was concerned. Apart from its success in qualifying for the World Cup, it had a professional football league that came into existence 10 years before the J. League.

However, by the time FIFA’s executive committee met in May 1996 to decide on who would get the World Cup, Japan had enough merits of its own to counter South Korea (Mexico was, by this time, a non-runner).

The J. League was launched in a blaze of publicity in Tokyo in May 1993 and the attention of the media on the star-studded league had done more for Asian soccer since North Korea beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

Bona fide stars were coming to Japan. Apart from Gary Lineker, Pierre Littbarski and Zico, 11 of the Brazilian squad that won the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles ended up in the J. League.

The K. League, by comparison, attracted miserable crowds and played on lumpy pitches in fourth-division stadiums and nobody had even heard of its foreign stars.

But both countries remained convinced they deserved to host the World Cup.

Japan certainly set the early pace — not surprisingly as it already had FIFA, in the guise of president Joao Havelange and general secretary Sepp Blatter, on board. It also roped in big names such as Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton to say what a wonderful place it was and how the World Cup should come to Japan.

This was the public face of the campaigns. The real work was done by a traveling horde of officials, politicians and spin doctors from both countries.

“We knew we had to make a big impression on FIFA and we knew the way we approached things would be critical, especially when FIFA people visited Japan,” Kamamoto noted.

“But also, we had to make an impression outside of Japan. For all of this we needed lots of money.”

At any FIFA gathering in the world — and it really didn’t matter where it was — representatives from the two countries would fly in, set up shop and start wining and dining the men of power and influence.

Anyone who wanted to get an inside look at preparations in the two countries would be whisked across the world to Japan or South Korea, chauffeured around and showered with gifts.

In fact, the campaigns became so over the top, the head of the Asian Football Confederation wrote to both countries telling them to cool things down.

“It is our duty to take control of the situation so that the sanctity and morality of soccer are protected,” Sultan Ahmad Shah wrote. “We are concerned with the unprecedented rivalry between the two in their campaigns to become host.”

Shah went on: “The AFC is embarrassed with the intensive campaigns in every continent at all official events. In fact, the campaigns have gone beyond the limits of normalcy.”

Kamamoto told a weekly magazine in Japan that he thought the Koreans were going out of their way to “influence” FIFA officials. The former Dietman is now more diplomatic in his opinions.

When asked if he still thinks the Koreans were up to no good, he replied: “That’s a very delicate question and I can’t answer that.”

However, he continued: “I did hear there were things going on, there were gifts of money and so on. You’ve seen what happened with the IOC and the Olympics and in the end you can’t say that these things never happened. If someone wants to do that, there are things that you can do.”

Kamamoto insists that Japan fought a clean fight: “For Japan, finances were tight anyway and all we could do was to rely on past alliances and to treat everybody decently.”

However, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official quoted in The Japan Times said that if Japan had won the World Cup on its own, “It was anticipated that the South Korean press would start reporting allegations about Japan buying votes from FIFA members by such means as linking official development assistance with votes by FIFA board members from Africa.”

Rumors were rife that envelopes of money changed hands, lavish gifts were given and expensive trips, especially to the host countries, were generously arranged and paid for.

In the end, the men from FIFA grew tired of being bombarded with information (but probably not the food, wine and gifts). Reports suggested that each country had spent nearly $100 million on their campaigns, a staggering amount.

And an amount that would, ultimately, prove futile. This World Cup campaign would be settled by political infighting behind closed doors.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.