After solving the issue of what the 2002 World Cup would be called in Japanese — by removing the two countries’ names — FIFA no doubt hoped that the organization of the tournament would proceed without any further hiccups.
It was wishful thinking.
With just over a year to go before the World Cup, the continuation of a long-standing feud between Japan and South Korea over Japan’s version of 20th century history suddenly boiled over.
More than 50 years on since the end of World War II, Japan still publishes history books that, at best, gloss over the war years, at worst, distort them grossly. South Korea and China regularly attack the Japanese government for allowing what they perceive to be gross misrepresentations of historical fact in school textbooks.
In April 2001, South Korea demanded the revision of eight middle-school textbooks approved by the Japanese government, claiming that they represented “a distortion of history.”
Japan responded by noting that the books had been screened and approved by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry and it stood by the contents of the books.
Japanese culture demands that confrontation must be avoided at all costs, which in practical terms often means that the Japanese will sweep problems under the carpet rather than confront them. If a problem can’t be seen to exist, then to them it doesn’t exist.
So while volumes of evidence have emerged over the last decade concerning such historical issues as the Rape of Nanking, the sexual enslavement of women by the military (the Japanese refer to them as “comfort women”) and its barbaric wartime experiments on live humans (at the infamous Unit 731), the official line is that there is no clear evidence that such “crimes” took place.
Unable to confront its past, Japan tiptoes around it, to the obvious annoyance of its neighbors and wartime victims.
In April 2001, South Korea recalled its ambassador to Japan as the row over Japan’s history textbooks escalated. The row lingered into the summer as the Koreans took a hard line over the issue and right-wing prime minister Junichiro Koizumi also dug his heels in. There was no direct damage to the preparations for the World Cup, but the row demonstrated to the world at large just how delicate relations between South Korea and Japan remain, and how the potential for disruption is never far below the surface.
In the shadow of this dispute, South Korea and Japan finally got a taste of what cohosting might be like as they cohosted FIFA’s Confederations Cup in May and June 2001. The tournament featured the six FIFA confederation champions, defending champion Mexico plus the two cohosts (Japan was also the Asian champion). The eight teams were split into two groups of four — one in Korea and one in Japan.
It was a working exercise for the two host countries, a chance for them to show the world that they had the capabilities to host such tournaments and also a chance for Blatter to dispel the notion that football was about to collapse under the weight of the ISL bankruptcy.
Blatter himself fell victim to the biggest potential problem of the World Cup: transportation. Korean soccer chief Chung admitted this was a worry.
“We have around 40,000 seats available on aircraft flying between the two countries and this is expected to rise to around 80,000,” Chung explained to journalists at a working lunch at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents Club. “But we estimate that there could be as many as 400,000 fans needing to change countries after the first round, so clearly the capacity isn’t enough.”
Chung urged the two governments to speed up the conversion of regional airports into international airports.
The following day, Blatter was thinking the same thing as he found it impossible to get a flight from the South Korean east coast city of Ulsan to Tokyo. “There must be more airplanes from one country to another,” an irritated FIFA boss told journalists. “They must use all airports for international arrivals and departures.”
Problems also occurred at Japan’s opening match in Niigata when fans overwhelmed the shuttle bus system and thousands were left stranded as the home team’s match with Canada got under way, while Australia showed the potential problems some teams might have as it played its group matches in South Korea, the semifinal in Yokohama and the third-place playoff back in Korea.
“The traveling was hell,” Australia’s Tony Vidmar noted. “We played the semifinal in a monsoon, spent nearly all of the next day on a bus then played again the following day.”
While the weather was generally cooperative, the Australia-Japan semifinal was played in a torrential downpour, something no amount of preparation can prevent during the World Cup. Ironically, the only World Cup stadium with a roof — the Sapporo Dome — is located in a city that doesn’t have a rainy season.
Of more concern to the organizers was the inability of the two cohosts to sell out the opening and final games, both against World Champions France. While Blatter boasted about the overall attendance in the two countries — 290,000 in South Korea, 283,000 in Japan — the attendance at the less glamorous matches (6,000 for Australia-Mexico in Korea) could prove potentially embarrassing and financially draining. South Korea still has over a quarter of a million tickets available.
Other problems included volunteers who spoke English but knew nothing, a curious lack of TV coverage, both overzealous and apathetic security guards, cumbersome visa procedures and beds that were too small for some of the players.
The next big problem for the two countries to deal with was whether or not Emperor Akihito of Japan would travel to South Korea for the opening ceremony. Heads of state of the host countries usually attend the opening ceremony.
Chung was keen for the Emperor to attend and went on record as saying that the Emperor could travel to South Korea twice — once to defuse the tension in Korea, and once again to attend the opening of the World Cup. But it won’t happen. The Imperial Household Agency has said that the Emperor will not travel to Korea, but will likely attend the final in Yokohama.
FIFA declared the Confederations Cup a success — not perfect, it said, but that is only to be expected. The real test will come in June when the two countries host a tournament four times the size of the Confederations Cup with many more fans coming from overseas and the entire focus of the world’s media on them.
The World Cup is a tournament that, up to now, has sold itself. A lot more rides on the 2002 version.
Two countries struggling to throw off the cloak of hatred that has shrouded their relations, a governing body mired in organizational, financial and political crises and a sport that has to re-establish itself as a sport rather than as a marketing exercise.
In the past, it is the sport itself that has risen to defeat the demons that surround football. The awarding of the 2002 World Cup to two bitter enemies was an attempt at using sport to ward off the political demons of the past and present, but in doing so has created demons of its own.
A lot rides on the success of this year’s tournament: FIFA politics, the future of cohosting, relations between South Korea and Japan.
Some may say that cohosting has helped exacerbate these problems, but, in reality, the 2002 World Cup sometimes appears to be held hostage to problems not of its own making.
Despite the gloom that surrounds world football at the moment, on July 1 it may all seem like a passing cloud.
Every four years, the world unites to celebrate the world game. People and nations do come together. The only things that matter are what 22 players do with little ball on 7,000 sq. meters of grass over a 90-minute period.
Soccer will always be stronger than the demons that seek to undermine it.
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