World Cup 2002 Beat: Co-hosts battle through obstacles

Full spead ahead, despite severe economic blows

TOKYO - These aren't easy times for Japan.

The Nikkei, the Tokyo stock market, has recovered all its losses of the last two years. The yen is again strong - down to 102 to the dollar.

But the Japanese have paid a price.

The latest spending report, issued on the eve of the 2002 World Cup draw, showed a decrease of 1 percent for the third quarter.

Japanese are spending less because of the fear of the future.

Corporations are cutting back. Nissan, the automaker that was a symbol of the Japanese economic boom exporting cheap cars to the United States, has $12 billion in debts. It's laying off thousands of workers and has announced it will cut ties with half its suppliers.

The corporate culture that guaranteed men employment for life is fading. Suicides were up 35 percent last year. The biggest increase is among salarymen who lost their jobs.

JR East, the railway that serves Tokyo and the surrounding area, has launched a hotline for people considering suicide. It reports 125 suicides on its tracks in the last six months. The railway is concerned that these suicides are causing delays - a problem when you consider the punctuality of Japanese trains.

Soccer isn't immune to the crises.

Yokohama Flugels, one of the founding members of the J-League, folded last year when airline ANA, the club's major shareholder, pulled out. JEF United, the club whose former director Saburo Kawabuchi founded and remains the chairman of the J-League, is struggling to survive under the weight of an estimated $80 million in debts.

Shimizu S-Pulse has amazingly reached the final of this year's J-League, in spite of debts of $30 million. To survive, it cut its roster in half.

Similarities between MLS and the J-League

The J-League resembles MLS in many ways. After a fast start, interest has steadily declined. At the J-League's peak in 1994, its second season, attendance hovered around 20,000 a game. This season, average attendance dipped below 11,000.

The J-League spent far more money on players than MLS. For its inaugural campaign, stars like Zico, Gary Lineker and Pierre Littbarski were signed. Shortly afterward, Toto Schillaci, Basile Boli and Michael Laudrup arrived. Brazil's '98 World Cup team featured Japanese-based starters Dunga and Cesar Sampaio. They've all departed.

Just as MLS today relies on modestly priced foreigners from Central American and the Caribbean, the J-League clubs content themselves mostly with Koreans and obscure Brazilians.

The irony for both leagues is that their struggles coincide with the rise of the national team programs in their respective countries.

Yes, the United States and Japan were the only two teams to go 0-3 at France '98 - the Japanese avoided last place in the official standings because of better goal difference - but their youth programs are flourishing.

Japan's under-20 team finished second at the World Youth Championship this spring, and it forms the nucleus of the under-23 team that has already qualified for next year's Olympics. (Japanese insiders say that contrary to reports out of England that Frenchman Arsene Wenger - the former Grampus Eight boss - will coach the Japanese in 2002, the job is Frenchman Philippe Troussier's if his Olympic team does well next year.)

The problem the J-League has, similar to MLS's, is it can't keep its own top players.

"Japanese abroad" is big business. Hundreds of Japanese fans have flocked to Italy to see Hide Nakata at Perugia and Hiroshi Nanami at Venezia. Jubilo Iwata, the runaway winner of the first stage of the 1999 J-League, has struggled since the departure of Nanami this summer. Shoji Jo may leave Yokohama F Marinos for Spain. And Shinji Ono, Japan's top young player, will probably leave Urawa Reds following its relegation to the Second Division. Manchester United is among the suitors.

Twenty new stadiums by 2001

Despite the economic problems, Japan is going full speed ahead with its plans to organize the 2002 World Cup. Ten stadiums will be built at a cost of around $1 billion. The International Stadium in Yokohama, site of the 2002 final, and Nagai Stadium in Osaka are finished. The Miyagi Stadium will open in the spring, and the other seven will be finished in 2001. (The 10 stadiums co-host South Korea is building at a cost of $1.7 billion will all be finished in 2001.)

Faced with the same economic downturn that Japan and South Korea have experienced, any other nation would have given up if it had to build 10 stadiums.

Not the Japanese and Koreans.

They couldn't lose face.

Even when FIFA cut the pie in half, giving the Japanese and Koreans 32 games apiece, the Japanese went ahead with 10 venues.

"The plans have been made by the prefectures [states] many years ago," says Tadao Murata, the deputy secretary of the Japanese organizing committee (JAWOC) who spearheaded the bid effort in its early days.

Money was approved by the prefecture governments for the stadiums two years ago.

That's not to say organizing the World Cup will be easy.

Gone are the days when an organizing committee can control ticketing and generate big revenues off the sale of a fair share of the sponsorship categories.

The huge success of the USA '94 organizers, who made a $50 million profit, guaranteed that FIFA and its marketing partner, ISL, would step in.

JAWOC and KOWOC, its Korean counterpart, receive a subsidy of $100 million each to put on the games. Both have asked for more.

FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen says the FIFA executive committee will consider the request.

"It does not say that it will be accepted," he cautioned, "but it is a possibility."

Both Japan and South Korea have been allocated 750,000 tickets apiece.

"You know, I've never known an organizer happy with the distribution of tickets," said Lennart Johansson, the chairman of FIFA's World Cup 2002 organizing committee.

The 750,000 tickets represents an average of 23,000 a game. That's a paltry sum when you consider Japanese television ratings for the Japanese World Cup games in France topped 60 percent - the highest rating of any program in 1998.

Soccer is a big news story on Japanese television. The first leg of the J-League final between Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse led the nightly news on one network ahead of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle.

There remains, though, the thorny issue of rights to the 2002 finals.

The qualifying draw almost didn't appear on Japanese television.

Japanese television networks paid 600 million yen ($60 million) in 1998. ISL is demanding huge increases in rights fees to cover the $1 billion deal it signed in partnership with German firm Kirch.

ISL, which holds TV rights outside Europe in 2002 and 2006, wants 25 billion yen ($250 million) for the 2002 rights in Japan. Japanese television has offered 10 billion ($100 million). The qualifying draw is part of the 2002 rights, so the Japanese needed the intervention of FIFA president Sepp Blatter to get the draw on television.

Two old enemies forced to coexist

FIFA's decision three years ago to award the 2002 World Cup jointly to Japan and South Korea - a political move stemming from the rift between then-FIFA president Joao Havelange and his executive committee - left two old enemies forced to coexist.

Koreans hold a deep resentment for Japanese occupation of the peninsula in the early part of the century. Two hundred thousand Korean women were conscripted as "comfort women" in World War II. Afterward, Korea banned most forms of Japanese culture, including movies and films.

After the 1996 vote on the 2002 World Cup, a "soccer summit" was held on the Korean island of Cheju (a venue for the 2002 finals), and the prime ministers of the two countries met to discuss ways to work together.

This fall, Keizo Obuchi and Kim Pong Pil, the current prime ministers of Japan and South Korea, respectively, met on Cheju to discuss issues facing the two countries in the new millennium.

Representatives of JAWOC and KOWOC downplay the differences.

"Historically, we have had some difficulties," says Murata. "It was especially hard for old people in Korea. But the young people don't remember."

Choi Chang Shin, the general secretary of KOWOC, notes the relationship of 5,000 years between Korea and Japan.

"There was one period of unhappiness," he says. "Forty years. That's all."

Whatever the problems, the future is bright.

Both countries will be blessed with 10 new soccer stadiums - most will have a capacity of 40,000 - all paid for by government funds. MLS can only dream of such good fortune.

Says Murata, "Japanese football will prosper after the World Cup."

by Soccer America managing editor Paul Kennedy

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