Japan 1, S. Korea 1 both won; Soccer diplomacy: World Cup forces bitter rivals to cooperate.


MUCH AS AMERICANS rejoice at hosting this summer's Olympics in Atlanta, hundreds of millions of sports fans throughout the world believed the U.S. reached the big-time in 1994 by hosting the soccer World Cup. It was so huge it needed the stadium resources of the nation.

What the rest of the world calls football and Americans soccer has staged these wars of the best national teams quadrennially since 1930, always in Europe or the Americas. Next World Cup, 1998, is in France. It's the bidding for the coveted 2002 World Cup, the first of the 21st century, the first in Asia, that made history.

Japan pledged more billions for stadiums and spent more millions in sales pitch. South Korea has the stronger soccer tradition, a finalist in the past three World Cups. Its people cared more. National prestige was on the line.

This thing got ugly. The two neighbors have frigid relations. Japan ruled Korea cruelly from 1910 to 1945. A Korean won the 1936 Berlin Olympics marathon, but only under a fake name as representing Japan. Koreans in Japan report discrimination. Attempts to harmonize policies by the two governments fail.

And so FIFA, the acronym of the world ruling body of soccer, made them co-hosts. They must cooperate, plan jointly, improve transport between their cities. What a brilliant idea. The unspoken furthermore is that North Korea, should it rejoin the planet, might get in on this act. The two regimes will have to make this work, or face furious constituents.

Japan was considered the shoo-in. The aged Brazilian head of FIFA wouldn't hear of co-hosting. Then the Europeans worried about the harm in Asia from the old rivalry and used their muscle in the board room. Japan swallowed hard and agreed. Co-hosting won.

It is a terrific precedent for such extravaganzas, each more super than the last. World Cup 2002 expects 40 billion television viewings. There's enough preparing for two of the world's richest middle-sized countries to do together. Then they might get on in other matters.

Pub date: 6/03/96

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