Memories of the first World Cup held in Asia: Final 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.

What follows is a diary of the late stages of tournament, match by selected match, starting June 14, 2002.

Japan 2, Tunisia 0. Japan are through to the last 16, to everybody’s relief. I’m not sure anybody would have gone on watching if Japan had gone out in the early rounds. I watched it in the boardroom of the company, with a couple of dozen Japanese, just five of whom were males. After the game, they went wordlessly back to their desks. No hooting or cheering or opening of cans of Asahi. It seems nobody is skyving from work to watch the games, though a lot of young people are wearing the Japan colours now. The television stations went into hero worship mode, with Beethoven soundtracks and histories of football in Japan.

South Korea went through too, beating Portugal in a frenetic thriller after falling two goals behind. The ref did not have a good game, disallowing a Korean goal and sending two Portuguese players off, in all cases needlessly. South Korea’s fate was ultimately decided in the other match in the group, between America and Poland. Poland won it. One of their players said later they had pulled out all the stops, despite having no chance of qualifying, to make sure South Korea got through on points. The Poles have apparently been very well treated in Korea.

The Korea match was shown on a big screen outside a restaurant, next to a car park where people could gather to watch. This was how it should be done. The Koreans roared and chanted and belly-laughed when Figo missed a sitter in the 70th minute. The flags were big, not the stupid little cardboard things the Japanese wave about like schoolkids in art class. That car park, I am sure, was the epicentre of the football world in Japan.

But as the night wore on, the rest of the city got into the spirit of it too. Hundreds of fans in blue shirts milled about in Shinjuku, watched by hundreds of riot police with their grilled trucks and buses. For the first time ever, I saw strangers doing high fives and getting together in the street to share the victory. Seoul must have gone into convulsions.

Ireland 1, Spain 1. Don’t quite know why I follow Ireland, but they usually give you exciting games if not football masterclasses. And, at the end of the day, they are also part of what I think of as my homeland. The Paddies struggled valiantly against superior opposition, only to lose, with characteristic drama, on penalties. I watched it in the only local bar open showing football on a Sunday evening. I was so absorbed in the game that I did not realise at first that there was something a bit different about the place. Namely, it was full of young women, and a lot of them were looking at me and the handful of men scattered about with something that suggested—no, perish the thought—sexual interest. In fact, no other way of putting it, we were being ogled. Now eye-contact between strangers is very unusual in Japan. It was, of course, a pickup bar.

But you’re here for the football, I know, so on with the match report. Ireland soon fell behind, and the usual magnificent fight-back was soon under way. After a second Spanish goal was disallowed for offside, Ireland went on to fluff a penalty, before Keane grabbed their equaliser in the 90th minute. Not very pretty football, but gripping stuff.

Around the time the Spanish goal was disallowed, I noticed a girl sitting to my left in a hot T-shirt, repeatedly looking at me. This was really distracting, of course, and I could not concentrate on Ireland’s dogged counter-offensives. She eventually went away, but in the second half, there was another woman at the next table, and she too was making eyes. With her was her younger sister, who was crashed out over the table top, having spent the last night on the tiles and also at A&E at a local hospital with alcohol poisoning, if I understood right. Anyway, elder sister was very sexy, though for some reason she was dressed like an accountant on a client visit. She said she worked at the Lawson convenience store HQ in ATM operations or something, and she knew a hell of a lot about football. Supported the Kashima Antlers, as that was where her dad was from. And Nottingham Forest. She had actually heard of Brian Clough. She liked that kind of man, she said, forceful, rough-edged, not like a Japanese section chief.

When the final whistle blew, I knew what I had to do and, because I was in another relationship, I did not do it. It would have been hard shaking off the drunk sister, anyway. But I did not feel good about it. My mate Ryan would have done the business. He once told me—I’m polishing up his crude words here—to betray a lover is a sin against decency, but to walk away from a sexual opportunity is a sin against nature. You choose your sin. And I walked away.

Japan 0, Turkey 1. Japan went out without much of a fight to Turkey, although pouring rain slowed the game down badly. I watched it in Okubo again, surrounded once more by squealing females. This time, it was South Korea sinking Italy, on the car park screen. This was a much more raucous affair, so much so that I overheard a Japanese guy telling his girlfriend, “Don’t worry, there are also a lot of Japanese supporters here too.” Here I saw my one and only fan fight during the competition, though the aggressor, bawling street Japanese, was so drunk he could barely stand. Push and grunt stuff, with no punch thrown. His fight strategy seemed to be falling on his opponent.

This match proved one of the highlights of the World Cup, though. South Korea scored their equaliser in the 88th minute, and finished Italy off in extra time. The game had everything, including an outrageously wrong penalty decision, but that has been par for the course for this World Cup.

After the game, I mingled with and photographed the crowd, who were noisy but sober and good-natured despite the enormous police presence—at least a dozen riot squad buses and other vehicles were policing the celebrations. A nice moment came when they chanted “Nippon! Korea!,” the latter word in English—preferred by many Koreans because it blurs the distinction between North and South. To my disappointment, there were no Japanese journalists here, at the best venue on the biggest night so far of the tournament. Presumably, they were sulking after the Japan result. I had thought they were better than that.

I hung around afterwards in a bar with a bunch of elated Koreans, mostly overseas students in Japan. They gave me pumpkin-flavoured rice-balls and tried to sell me international telephone cards. All sober. One guy had been studying IT in Japan for several years, and had married a Japanese. He planned to take his wife back to South Korea when he had saved enough. This was the fellow who said young Japanese do not care enough about history, while South Koreans cared too much (see first article). He did not expect lasting improvement in relations.

A great many of the lingering crowd outside, he said, were zainichi Japanese-Koreans born and brought up in Japan, but denied automatic citizenship because their parents were the wrong race. In ten years of living in Japan, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of zainichi I had knowingly met outside the little Tokyo Koreatown, Okubo. And now, for the first time, I was looking at a crowd of them, Japanese in speech, manner and every detail except their ID papers. And today their red shirts, the attire that, for a few weeks, made an invisible community visible.

England 1, Brazil 2. Playing against 10 men for 40 minutes, we still could not get a shot on goal. We went out like Japan, with a whimper not a bang. Most Japanese cheered for us, interestingly—the Beckham factor among girls. (The Japanese media have been overdoing the Beckham pictures partly, I suspect, to keep the Korean pretty boys off the magazine covers; many Koreans do have a certain flashiness the Japanese players lack.)

There has been a slight change of mood since the Blues went out. The Japanese are not happy with the way they have been upstaged. I think they will cheer privately, publicly too maybe, when the co-hosts go out. The South Koreans do not help themselves with their excitability and cockiness, qualities that play very badly among ordinary Japanese.

South Korea 5, Spain 3. Shock result, marred by two more terrible refereeing decisions, both disallowing Spanish goals. It is clear that, consciously or subconsciously, refs are helping the Korean team. Spain very pissed off, and rightly. It’s not hard to see why refs might be swayed. Having an East Asian team excelling in the World Cup will massively internationalize the game and attract a large region with tens of millions potential football fans and customers. Koreans do not seem to view this as a victory secured by the ref, by the way, or more likely they just have no qualms about it. I saw red T-shirts in parts of town other than Okubo. It was weird hearing the chant of Dae Hangugmin (Great Korean people) on Tokyo streets. That too is surely a first.

Germany 1, South Korea 0. South Korea out, to Japan’s relief: I don’t think they could have coped with the Reds in the finals. South Korea will play Turkey for third place. The football powers are delighted at having two “Asian” teams in the top four, but it grates. South Korea and Turkey are nearly 5,000 miles apart and have nothing whatsoever in common. Language, physical attributes, skin colour, history, culture, language—all are completely different. Turkey has more in common with Greece than it does with East Asia. It’s weird.

So that was the 2002 World Cup. Did it fundamentally change relations between Japan and South Korea? Probably not. Some of the camaraderie on the Japanese side felt a bit forced, while the Koreans were concerned mainly with getting one over the old enemy, which they did. There was so little true cooperation that you got the impression of two separate World Cups being staged simultaneously.

It didn’t do any harm though, and perhaps did give some impetus to the slow rapprochement triggered by the Korean wave of TV dramas and high-energy pop music in Japan. Especially among Japanese women. You have to remember, there is a big difference between Japanese and Korean males. Korean males have to do military service. And it shows.

Anyway, that was the World Cup 2002. Hope you enjoyed it. Now back to the future, and the finals of 2022.

© text & images Joe Slater 2022