Memories of the first World Cup held in Asia: Early rounds

The Japan-Korea World Cup in 2002 was the first time the competition had been co-hosted. It was the first time it had been held in Asia, and the first time a country that had never qualified for past tournaments was approved as a host. It was a tournament of unlikely wins and some of the dodgiest refereeing ever seen in international football. And for both co-hosts, it was also a landmark for reasons that had little to do with sport.

Few neighbouring countries have a worse relationship than Japan and its prewar colony for 50 years, Korea, now of course divided into North and South halves. This is a big topic. As I cannot go into it deeply, I will just resort to a single crass generalisation, a quote from a young zainichi (ethnic Korean in Japan) I met in a bar during the competition: “The Koreans care too much about history, and the Japanese don’t care enough.” There was a great deal more to the quarrel than that, but history was at the heart of it.

So this World Cup was seen as an opportunity to force Japan and South Korea to understand each other better, break down barriers and work together. It is easy to underestimate how big a step it was. Japan was a baseball-playing country. Football had only been properly established there a decade before. It had had to be intensively marketed to get it off the ground, and it did not yet have either the first-rank teams or the ardent grassroots support you find in the game in Europe. In Korea, football had deeper roots. The national team had made the World Cup five times before. But you still would not call it a football-mad country. Baseball was arguably bigger there too, though it was a closer call.

Japan and South Korea had never really cooperated over anything in modern times, except when told to by the US military, which dominates their defence policies and retains bases in both countries. Instead, it seemed their relations were ruled by petty spite. Until very recently, ethnic Korean schools in Japan weren’t even allowed to participate in national college baseball tournaments. Meanwhile, South Korea long blocked Japanese cultural imports, including pop music and manga. People often assume Japan’s post-colonial relationship with Koreans is like Britain’s with Irish. It isn’t. Despite the old grievance, English and Irish people socialise readily, befriend and marry each other, and settle in each others’ countries. Japanese and Koreans rarely mix if they can avoid it and barely intermarry. Koreans living in Japan and Japanese living in South Korea have long had to reckon with occasional insults, threats and even violence.

Nevertheless, by 2002 there were some positive signs. To everybody’s surprise, Japan too had succumbed to the Korean Wave in pop and TV dramas that had swept across Asia. With this cultural momentum, the World Cup 2002 was a chance to completely recast bilateral relations. That for me, living in Japan at the time, was what this World Cup was really about.

It started inauspiciously enough. In the runup to the tournament, a forestry official in Shizuoka handling the Senegal football team had a nervous breakdown, complaining that the Africans “did things differently.” But generally both countries coped well with perhaps the largest visitor influx either had ever experienced. There were no major cockups or scandals, at least off the field. So was it successful? What follows is a diary of the tournament, match by selected match, starting May 31, 2002.

Apology in advance: I am much more interested in politics than in football. These two articles are likely to be stuffed with errors and inaccuracies as far as the games go. It was a while back now, and I couldn’t be bothered to trawl through all the match reports. These are my notes only. So sorry about that.

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France 0, Senegal 1. So the competition begins with a surprise, and I am stuck watching it an empty Chinese restaurant with nobody to share the excitement. Not that the game itself was all that exciting. France controlled the match, but just could not score, and Senegal got lucky. “We did it for Africa,” their scorer gushed, “but most of all for the guy who lost his marbles because he couldn’t cope with our team camp.” Sorry, that was tasteless. Just couldn’t resist it.

In fact, there weren’t any post-match interviews or analyses, just a bit of squealing from a couple of bijin (slang for “pretty girls (on the box);” Vorderman was the classic UK bijin) sat a table surrounded by stuffed toys. The match was played in Sapporo, on Hokkaido—there are, incredibly, no games in Tokyo—and they did not seem to have anybody at the ground. Only the big Japan games are being shown live, and, methinks, South Korea games as little as decently possible.

This game was on the national broadcaster, NHK. They usually copy everything the BBC does, but not in this instance. The set looked more like Playschool than Match of the Day. One of the private channels did manage to get a few translated comments from a Frenchman well versed in football, one Arsène Wenger, but he was in Seoul and had not been able to attend. The questions—“are you disappointed?”—were not exactly taxing. At least they didn’t ask him if he could eat Korean food.

Then they cut to a group of England fans who were trying to get across town to Roppongi for some serious bevvies, but could not work the metro ticket machines. Very amusing. I wonder if the bars have been told to get rid of the No Foreigner signs this month. Japanese fans are going around in blue shirts and in some cases in fancy dress. A Guardian online writer went on about “samurai wandering about with swords.” He also called Mount Fuji Fuji-yama, which brought the dormant news editor in me rising from the vault. “Beginner’s mistake,” I railed in an imaginary email—“it’s always Fuji-san in Japanese, san being the preferred, more dignified Chinese reading for yama.” Just for once I stopped myself.  (That reminds me of a journo I once knew who regularly wrote angry letters to his own paper under the name of his dog, Mr. Mackey. This worked fine until one day the senior ed. came round for dinner and Mackey started sniffing his crotch. “Down Mackey!” ordered the journo. “Oh crap …”)

So, after the opening passage of play, I’d say Japan as cohost is off to an uncertain start. They don’t quite seem to know what to do with the ball. Coverage is inadequate, and there is no real sense of football fever engulfing the nation. Most of the fans seem to be young women, and the players getting the media attention are the ones with the looks, not the skills.

Japan 2, Belgium 2. This is more like it. OK, a score draw against Belgium is not putting a man on the moon. But for any Asian team to hold a European team is something of an achievement. Japan matched the Europeans in every department and actually deserved to win. I watched it in a bar in nearby Okubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown. I am doing all my viewing in cafes and bars. My own borrowed travelling TV has a four-inch-wide screen, but that isn’t really why I go out. The World Cup has to be enjoyed in a crowd.

More thrilling was the reaction on the streets after the match. For the first time ever, I heard people who were not yakuza-linked nationalist cranks shouting “Nip-pon! Nip-pon!” in the street (“Nippon” is a more strident, chant-able version of the word “Nihon,” Japan). Blue tops and white headbands saying hisshou (death or glory) were much more in evidence tonight. This was first spontaneous public display of nationalism I can recall.

Stoking the ferment was the news that South Korea that same night had whacked Poland 2-0, a victory the Japanese in the streets seemed to be genuinely delighted with, rather than feeling upstaged as I had feared they might. Both games were fluid and exciting. In highlights of the Korea game, the Europeans did not get a shot on target in the second half. The atmosphere was brilliant and the Japanese were rooting for the Koreans, which was a joy to see. The stadium where the Koreans were playing was a sea of roaring red. Nobody can be accused of not taking it seriously over there.

Commitment prize for the evening went to a Korean player who took a five-yard clearing drive right in the bollocks. He went down as though shot in the belly, but was back on his feet in two minutes flat, albeit hobbling around in agony with his hands on his crotch for the rest of the half.

Left feeling somewhat out of it all have been the Chinese, who are also very numerous in Okubo. China have been the whipping boy of the tournament so far. Today, they stumbled to a 0-2 defeat to miniscule Costa Rica. But this competition is also a landmark for China, and not just because this is its first appearance in the World Cup. It is as far as I know the first case of mass sports attendance outside the country that has ever been allowed by the Communists. There apparently some 40,000 Chinese fans in South Korea, parked, not coincidentally I suspect, on Jeju island, the one place in the country you cannot easily do a bunk from. Most of them, a Chinese friend said, would be ordinary urban workers—country people are not interested in football—enjoying their first ever trip abroad.

In a Korean barbecue shop, I watched Germany versus Ireland, a thrilling game that ended in a draw after a 92nd-minute equaliser by the Irish. I was the only customer, which gave plenty of opportunity for chat. The staff were Korean. They made the interesting point that of the ethnic Koreans born and raised in Japan, the men generally supported South Korea, but the women, Japanese in all but bloodline, tended to support Japan. They said too that the North was watching and quietly supporting South Korea.

That evening too, America beat Portugal 3-2. This has so far been a World Cup of underdogs, and also of attacking football, without much boring possession play.

England 1, Argentina 0. A victory against the old foe made all the sweeter for the fact that it came from a blatantly wrong penalty decision. Argentina were half-asleep and did not really have a single good chance. As underdogs England outperformed expectations, unlike their fans. Japanese media had been salivating at the prospect of a ratings boost from some hardcore hooliganism. But they did not get any. Instead, our lads fraternised with the locals in bars around town, waving cuddly toys.

China 0, Brazil 4. Viewed this one at the Korean barbecue shop with a Chinese friend, Tom. We were alone, but Tom shouted out every time a Chinese had a shot. “Just one goal would be enough” he kept saying. Alas, China have not even managed that in any game so far. He said he will be supporting Russia in this evening’s match with Japan. He’s not particularly pro-Russian—few Chinese ever have been—but Japan has a territorial dispute with Moscow and he always backs Japan’s enemies. And he is married to a Japanese.

Japan 1, Russia 0. A historic result. The scorer was Inamoto, who repeatedly insisted to the interviewer that “the goal was scored by the team.” In the bar where I saw the game, the Japanese finally found their voices. They were even cheering Russian mistakes. Now they’re getting it, I thought.

France 0, Denmark 2. Exit France, after a dismal campaign. I had been looking forward to this match most of all day and was astonished to find that no terrestrial TV station was showing it. How is this possible? A crunch qualifier and they’re not showing it—are these people serious? The coverage has been a recurrent problem. The lack of interest in matches not involving Japan is embarrassing. Simultaneous games are not being simultaneously covered on different stations.

Also, Japan does not seem to have any real football pundits. Instead, you get bijin with cardboard flags and “talento” (variety show celebs) wisecracking and going “sugoi!” (“Wow! Brilliant!”) all the time. They’re not really interested in the football. A variety show showed the Cameroon team eating sashimi and interacting amusingly with host communities in far-flung Oita Prefecture. More damningly, there is no linkup with any studio in South Korea—this is evidently a televisual bridge too far. All the money the Japanese sank into this competition and the mass media are ignoring half of it.

England 0, Nigeria 0. England scraped into the next round in the worst match of the tournament so far. And miserable Argentina are out, which doubled the satisfaction. Watched this one in the Florida bar in town with the lads and lassies from my office, most of whom are American. It is touching to see the efforts of the Americans to show interest in the World Cup. God knows what they privately thought of the pissed-up, bawling, cursing gang of Englishmen at the front. Even I was a bit shocked. One guy in particular, a bald, mild-mannered financial translator versed in things like discounted cash flow and the straight-line method now sat there yelling, “Send the fucker off! Get the ball out of the fucking penalty area!,” causing bemusement and mild apprehension among everybody around him.

[to be continued]

© text & images Joe Slater 2022