Venues offer the best of facilities

A. VINOD

A NEW leaf will be turned in the history of the game of football when France kicks off its title defence against Senegal at the Seoul World Cup stadium on May 31. Precisely, six years to the day after the FIFA executive at a meeting in Zurich decided unanimously to stand by its earlier decision to award the World Cup to Asia, but surprisingly vested that responsibility jointly to two countries - South Korea and Japan - for the first time in the history of football's signature event.

Expectedly, that decision of May 31, 1996, by FIFA's highest policy-making body, was greeted with derision in both nations and doomsayers predictably had a field day dismissing the idea of the World Cup being hosted jointly by two countries as an "arranged marriage between two reluctant partners." Not without substance, though, as both Japan and South Korea had hotly contested the idea of co-hosting the event and one senior FIFA functionary already was by then on record that FIFA expected at least one country to withdraw in due course as "the experiment was bound to meet with disastrous results."

The first step to the Asian bid was made by Japan in 1992 after the then FIFA president, Joao Havelange, visited that country and openly declared that the time had finally arrived for the World Cup to visit Asia. Soon thereafter, Japan formally announced its bid with a well-orchestrated campaign that also had the full backing of the Asian Football Confederation.

Korea was nowhere in the picture initially but the course of events changed rapidly when the present FIFA vice-president, Chung Mong-Joon, was elected president of the South Korean FA in 1995. His first effort was to bid for the World Cup on behalf of his country and when the country too joined the fray it came as a rude shock to FIFA, AFC and Japan. For the rest of the year and until the FIFA decision in May 1996, Korea carried out a high pitch campaign before AFC stepped in with a proposal that the 2002 World Cup be awarded jointly to the two main contenders.

The contention of the continental federation behind this radical proposal was that the consequences would be terrible for the AFC to bear if FIFA were to give the right to hold the 2002 World Cup to either of the two countries. Given the fact that the two countries were bitter enemies with the wounds of the Japanese aggression against Korea for almost 35 years between 1910 and 1945 were yet to be healed, FIFA, naturally, was displeased with the idea mooted by AFC.

Pressure was brought on the AFC to withdraw its proposal but with its president, Sultan Ahmad Shah and secretary, Peter Velappan, sticking to their guns, FIFA was finally convinced that the AFC suggestion was the best solution to avert a possible tragedy. However, the two delegations were still averse to the idea until they were told that one of them could forget the idea of hosting the World Cup if they did not go along with the AFC proposal.

Thus the "historic" decision to allot the new millennium's first World Cup to the two countries jointly was made, but problems continued to persist as both Japan and Korea wrangled hard and bitterly with every little detail in the decisions that were to be made for the successful conduct of the event. Forcing FIFA and AFC to intervene repeatedly to overcome the problems on the dates, venues, and the name of the joint organising committee, not to leave out the crucial question of which of the two countries should host the opening and final matches.

Things worsened once again when a public furore arose in Korea over the Japanese Government's refusal to amend a new history book which many Koreans felt whitewashed Japan's wartime atrocities. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated further when a visit by the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni Shinto shrine - which deifies 2.5 million fallen soldiers including 12 war criminals - caused massive public protests through the whole of Korea.

Fortunately, the ties between the two local organising committees did not get snapped with AFC and FIFA quickly stepping in to soothe the frayed tempers. It is hard to tell exactly when the two countries realised that a mountain of challenges had to be traversed for the successful conduct of the World Cup, just as Japan and Korea had distinguished themselves among the world sporting fraternity by hosting the 1964 Tokyo and 1988 Seoul Olympics much to the admiration of a truly global audience.

By making the most of the opportunity to co-host the World Cup, Japan and Korea joined hands and sent a new message to the rest of the world: "When two countries aim and work for a common goal, nothing is more important than friendship and trust." Japan, apparently, in its bid to placate the misgivings of the Koreans went one step further as it said, "Steering the 2002 FIFA World Cup to success is leading to the building of a Japan-Korea friendship relationship appropriate for the new century, and is certain to make a substantial contribution to the realisation of world peace."

Indeed, the start of the World Cup on May 31 would mark the onset of a new era as much as it would enunciate once again FIFA's basic theme of "one game, one house, one world." More importantly, the successful conduct of the event, despite all the simmering problems, is also certain to re-emphasise the spirit of enterprise and resourcefulness of the populace of the two nations, which already are role models in development even to the advanced West.

A good example of this is the accent given to the security measures in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11 last year. The tight measures which have been adopted, including the decision to declare all the 20 venues as no-fly zones, are said to be the largest ever security exercises to be initiated in this part of the world. The emphasis on security apart, adequate steps have also been taken to check the menace of hooliganism, what with the police personnel of both the countries trained to meet any eventuality.

For Asian football and sport as such, the World Cup is certain to be a turning point. And should either one or two of the four countries in the fray from the continent progress into the second round, it should really be a defining moment for Asian football as only Saudi Arabia has made that grade so far with its entry into the pre-quarters at USA 94.

Nonetheless, that Japan and South Korea have risen over many obstacles and odds to be ready to host the World Cup in time should make every Asian proud. This, including the investment of 2 billion dollars spent on the 20 new stadia - 10 in each country - to host 32 matches each of the 64-match sequence, allotted equally to Japan and South Korea.

Each a work of art and splendour offering the best of facilities to players, officials, spectators and the media. Turning away from myriad problems that were faced by the two local organising committees, let us focus on these venues which are expected to witness an exciting World Cup through the next few weeks.

The venues: South Korea:

Seoul: The capital city of South Korea. The Seoul World Cup stadium with a seating capacity of 64,640, is a stunning architectural wonder which symbolises a combination of Korean shield kites and octagonal serving trays, while the curving lines of the roof reflect traditional Korean designs.

Incheon: The fourth largest city in Korea. The design of the Munhak stadium recalls the sail boats that symbolise Incheon's historical role as Korea's leading maritime gateway. The multi-purpose stadium has a seating capacity of 50,256, including 306 seats earmarked for disabled persons.

Suwon: A thriving commercial and industrial centre, it is the home of Suwon Bluewings, one of Asia's top football clubs. The Suwon World Cup stadium is built on the model of the ancient Hwaseong fort with a traditional curved roof.

Daejeon: The undisputed technology capital of Korea. Simple and refined, the Daejeon World Cup stadium has been designed to welcome teams and spectators with the same warmth found in the traditional courtyards of Korean homes.

Jeonju: The gourmet capital of Korea. The Jeonju World Cup stadium is a beautifully designed structure incorporating the linear images of the strings of the Korean zither, the traditional Jeonju fan and the Sot-Dae, a Korean image of a bird on a long pole facing the North Star.

Gwangju: Located 329 km away from Seoul, it is the artistic and culture centre of Korea at the foot of Mount Mudeung. The stadium over there is an intriguingly open design which seems to bring the sky and surrounding mountains right onto the playing field.

Daegu: The third largest city in Korea, famous as a textile and fashion centre. The Daegu World Cup stadium blends well with its natural surroundings and has a roof which captures the linear beauty of a traditional Korean house.

Ulsan: A port city in the industrial heartland of Korea. The Munsu stadium draws its imagery from Ulsan's traditional symbols - the dolphin and the crane. The clean, simple lines also reflect the simplicity and dignity of the ancient Silla crown.

Pusan: The second largest city in Korea. The Pusan Asiad Main stadium has a futuristic and inspiring design. Pusan is also sure to gain international attention again in September/October this year, as host of the Asian Games.

Seogwipo: A tourist resort on the south coast of Jeju, Korea's largest island. The Jeju World Cup stadium has been designed to symbolise one of Jeju's many volcanoes and its roof represents a net flung from a fishing boat.

Japan:

Sapporo: The Sapporo Dome in Japan features the world's first mobile natural turf, boasting of a technology which allows the pitch to be grown and maintained outdoors and then moved into the interior of the stadium on a cushion of air. A real technological marvel.

Miyagi: Home to eight Japanese universities. The Miyagi stadium is an impressive venue with its roof designed in the image of the moon emblem which decorated the war helmet of Duke Masamune Date (1567-1636).

Ibaraki: Seat of the Kashima Antlers, one of Japan's premier football clubs. The Kashima stadium, though opened in 1993, has been renovated and is now equipped with the latest technology so that natural turf covers the pitch at all times.

Saitama: An industrial and culture zone, it is also the home of J-League club, Red Diamonds. At the Saitama stadium, any spectator from any seat can have a view of the whole field and enjoy the game.

Niigata: A tourist and agriculture centre, Niigata's own professional team is Albirex Niigata. The Niigata stadium's nickname, 'The Big Swan' stems from two sources: the swan-shaped white roof and the lake nearby, which is well known as a wintering ground for swans.

Shizuoka: Regarded as the football capital of Japan. The Ecopa stadium derives its name from two words: Eco for ecology and Pa for park, and fully demonstrates the ideology, "save energy, save resources." Another feature at this venue is the 5,236 removable seats that extend onto the pitch to allow spectators to have a closer view of the game.

Osaka: Long known as a centre of free enterprise. Home of two J-League clubs, Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka. The Nagai stadium is covered by a curving roof, constructed in such a way as to eliminate the need for supporting pillars and thereby allowing uninterrupted view to spectators from any seat.

Kobe: Sixth largest city in Japan. Also home to Vissel Kobe, another J-League team. The pride of the Kobe Wing stadium is the short distance separating the seats from the pitch, which at only 9m is the closest of all venues.

Oita: A high-tech industrial centre. The spherical shape of the Oita Big Eye stadium has been designed to harmonise with the surrounding hills. When viewed from above and the retractable roof is opened, the venue resembles the shape of an eye, hence its nickname. Another feature of the stadium is its "sky camera" which is a mobile camera attached to the upper support beam of the venue.

Yokohama: Second largest city after Tokyo. Yokohama F. Marinos and Yokohama FC are based here. The Yokohama sports stadium is the largest in the country and will host the final of the 2002 World Cup.