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In the year 2000, Belgium and the Netherlands became the first countries to cohost a major, FIFA-sanctioned football tournament when they staged the 2000 European Championship finals. It was an all-around success and pointed the way forward for other cohosted tournaments.

Except, perhaps, the 2002 World Cup.

While other countries and regions (Austria and Hungary; Norway, Denmark and Sweden; even Greece and Turkey) have made, or have been considering making, joint bids for major football tournaments, the one big difference with the Japan-South Korea conjoining is that these bids were joint bids from the beginning. In such cases, essential areas of dispute — who gets what and where — are taken care of even before the bidding gets under way.

This clearly wasn’t the case with 2002. Japan and South Korea were thrust together unceremoniously and on the back of an acrimonious fight to host the World Cup on their own. FIFA’s decision to cohost wasn’t the end of the problem, it was the beginning.

President Kim Young Sam of South Korea in a telegram to his bid committee wrote: “I believe that the cohosting of the 2002 World Cup will serve as an occasion to further solidify the friendly relations of Korea and Japan,” while Korean soccer chief Dr. Chung Mong Joon started referring to the event as “the Asian World Cup” and called it “an epoch-making event.”

The Japanese were less effusive. J. League president Saburo Kawabuchi could only say: “We cannot help but accept FIFA’s decision.”

Meanwhile, a Japan Times editorial pointed out the danger signs: “FIFA’s decision to allow Japan and South Korea to cohost the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament has all the ingredients of a sports disaster.”

This was borne out early on. At the very first meeting of the 2002 World Cup Organizing Committee, FIFA boss Joao Havelange reportedly tried to give all the juicy parts of the World Cup — the opening game, the draw, the final — to Japan.

Chung was having none of it, not least because he realized he would be lynched if he made too many concessions to Japan. In the end, South Korea got the opening game and the draw for the finals, while Japan was to host the preliminary draw and the final.

Once the lines of demarcation were drawn, things proceeded fairly smoothly and the respective organizing committees — JAWOC and KOWOC — set about the business of putting their swiftly revised plans into action.

“Surprising though it may sound, I think there is a spirit of cooperation between the two countries that people weren’t expecting,” Korean adviser Bryan Mathews said a few months after the decision was made. “Having been thrust together, they want things going forward as smoothly as possible.”

After the decision, one thing became clear — that South Korea and Japan had far more in common with each other than either had with FIFA, although the first major problem with the World Cup came from the AFC, who ironically were the original backers for cohosting.

The AFC delegation walked out of a FIFA Congress in Los Angeles in 1999 after a decision that gave Asia only two berths in addition to the two hosts for 2002. UEFA chief Lennart Johansson, to his credit, offered a “half-berth” in the form of a playoff with the final European qualifying team, but the Asians thought they were being slighted.

More to the point, they couldn’t understand why they should — in their eyes — suffer when the World Cup was heading to Asia for the first time. Africa, which had never hosted a World Cup, would have five berths in the 2002 finals while the South American group, which consists of just 10 countries, would get four or five, depending on the result of a playoff with Oceania (it was five after Uruguay beat Australia).

Closer to home, both JAWOC and KOWOC became irritated by FIFA rescheduling meetings for Zurich that were due to be held in the host countries. Indeed, the head of FIFA’s 2002 World Cup Organizing Committee — none other than Johansson himself — almost never showed his face in either of the two host countries. FIFA had no direct representation in the host countries and Blatter, a Swiss, eventually ended up appointing AFC general secretary Dato Peter Velappan to act as a coordinator.

This, effectively, meant that the 2002 World Cup was being coordinated by officials in at least five different countries (Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Sweden, Switzerland) on opposite sides of the globe.

For South Korea and Japan, it meant one thing: They were on their own.

Japan Football Association vice president Kunishige Kamamoto realizes the perception of Asia is different on the other side of the world.

“Seoul is only a couple of hours away (from Japan) and I get the impression that some people think that Japan and Korea and China can be lumped together as Asia,” the lawmaker stated bluntly. “The people have yellow skin and black hair and dark eyes; for some people it’s like they’re not much different, and maybe they saw the Japan Sea as just like a big river between two small countries.”

But Kamamoto, ever the politician — well, he was — has come around to the idea of cohosting.

“I suppose, on reflection, you have to consider it’s a new century with new ideas and ways of thinking, so perhaps it wasn’t such a surprising decision. In some ways, it can’t be helped and we’ll just have to live with it.

“I was certainly disappointed, but after a while I began to think, well, maybe it’s not so bad. I began to think that it could be used as a turning point in our relationship with Korea. We’ve never really got along despite being very close geographically, and I think it would be better if we could work together with Korea and with China to boost Asia. I guess I’m comfortable with the decision now.”

Kamamoto’s change of heart comes at a time when relationships between the two countries have improved enormously. Politicians in both countries have sought to mend fences and the ascendancy of former political prisoner Kim Dae Jung to the presidency in South Korea opened up the country to new ideas, new politics and a new way of life.

“I think we both believe it’s important to make the World Cup a success, so we have a better relationship now,” Kamamoto explained. “A couple of years ago President Kim Dae Jung came to Japan and made a speech before the Diet in which he said this is the start of a new cooperation between us. He said a lot of things happened in the past but we should forget and forgive. I was overwhelmed by that.”

Kim sped up the process of rapprochement with Japan, easing certain visa regulations, opening up the country to Japanese culture — Japanese films and popular music were banned outright in South Korea until 1999 — and encouraging friendly relations.

However, there were two major hiccups — one between the organizing committees and one between the two governments — that occurred early in 2001.

While the official title of the tournament is the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, the Japanese claim an agreement was reached early on with KOWOC’s first chairman, Pak Se Juk — a Japanese speaker — that Japan could switch the names of the countries when written in the Japanese language.

Current JAWOC general secretary Yasuhiko Endo, who speaks some Korean, explains: “He (Pak) spoke Japanese very well and understood Japanese culture and he knew that when Japanese people refer to the relationship between Japan and Korea the only word they use is Nikan — or Nippon and Kankoku.”

While senior figures in the Japan Football Association blame Korean football chief Chung for the flap — they implied that he was trying to make political capital at a time when his family’s business, Hyundai, was in severe trouble — Endo says that Chung was party to the original agreement but could not agree to it publicly “because the Korean people would not have agreed to such a thing.”

But Endo does not blame the Koreans; he blames FIFA, who not only insisted that the original word order remain unchanged, but also said that Japan must use its katakana phonetic alphabet when writing out the two countries’ names, a linguistic faux pas on roughly the same level as the European Commission telling the British they must speak French from now on.

After Japan Times soccer writer Kumi Kinohara wrote about the issue under the headline “FIFA insults Japan,” Endo responded:

“That was exactly right, because FIFA didn’t understand Japanese culture. They don’t understand Oriental culture at all and I think FIFA should have tried to understand Asian culture — or at least tried to understand Japan and Korea — before they awarded the World Cup to Japan and Korea.”

With pride in danger of precipitating a nasty fall in relations, the Japanese, pressured by FIFA, were forced to back down, eventually saving face by taking the names of both countries off official documents in Japanese.

But problems between the two countries weren’t over yet.