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Asian World Cup hopefuls clash: Japan and South Korea have pride to lose in bid to host the 2002 tournament

IN BRAZIL, the parties for last week's World Cup victory are still going strong. The French, who failed even to qualify, are trying to motivate themselves for the 1998 tournament, which they are hosting.

But the real battle is in Asia - mainly between Japan and South Korea, with China on the fringe. The prize is the honour of holding the 2002 tournament, the first outside the Americas or Europe.

Joao Havelange, president of governing body Fifa, would like the first World Cup of the 21st century to be held in Asia. He has repeatedly said in public that he looks favourably on Japan's chances, though he has stopped short of endorsing Tokyo's candidacy. Fifa will make the final decision in 1996.

Japan had been regarded as the easy favourite, at least until last October. 'There is no way the Japanese won't get the World Cup,' Gary Lineker, the former England and Spurs star who signed a lucrative two-year contract with Nagoya Grampus Eight, told the Independent last year. Tokyo had money and influence, and was ready to spend as much as it took to publicise its bid, to lobby Fifa delegates, to build the necessary stadiums and to host the competition. Then came the qualifying games for this year's contest.

Japan had two aims: to qualify, and to stop South Korea, their only serious rival in Asia, from holding the 2002 tournament. 'Beat South Korea' became a national motto. At first things went well: Japan won 1-0 when the sides met in Qatar last October, and the South Koreans went into national mourning. 'The worst humiliation since the 1910 annexation by Japan,' their newspapers reported.

Japan then went on to play Iraq, needing a win to qualify for the US finals. Until the 89th minute, they were 2-1 up, but in the final seconds of the game the Iraqis scored the equaliser, effectively putting Japan out of the Cup and letting in South Korea. The imported Dutch manager of the Japanese national team, Hans Ooft, promptly resigned; in another era he would have been expected to have fallen on his sword, so great was the upset.

In the US, the South Koreans went on to acquit themselves respectably, with two draws and one loss in their group. Suddenly Japan's challenge to host the 2002 Cup was put in the shade.

Seoul argued that Japan, despite all its money and publicity effort, had still not earned its studs in the actual game of football: South Korea had qualified for the past three World Cups in a row - three times more than Japan.

The battleground was laid. Earlier this year, Havelange attempted to avoid a full-scale confrontation by floating the idea that Japan and Korea could jointly host the 2002 event - the main cities of the two countries are in many cases closer to each other than some of the US venues were. But with their history of mutual animosity and wartime memories, neither the Japanese nor the Koreans were interested in sharing the Cup: it is all or nothing for both sides.

The battle reflects the overall struggle for economic power in Asia: Japan, the second largest economy in the world, master of electronics and manufacturing technology, pitted against South Korea, Asia's second most dynamic economy, less rich but more dogged and persevering.

On the touchline is China, which will also bid for the 2002 World Cup, but its football, like its economy, is still in the early stages of development.

To some, football may be just a game, but between Tokyo and Seoul it has come to involve national pride, political and economic prestige, and cultural virility. May the best nation win.