World Cup gives Asia's old foes new battlefield for old

"THE relationship," says Chung Mong Joon, president of the Korean Football Association, "cannot be fully comprehended by the word rivalry. We suffered brutal colonisation by the Japanese for 36 years. We are Japan's victims. So why are the Japanese still competing with us?"

Dr Chung is not speaking about the usual issues which cloud relations across the Sea of Japan - or the East Sea, as Koreans pointedly refer to it. After a choppy year, the question of compensation for Korean "comfort women", forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the griping about Japan's ambiguous apology for its wartime activities, are being eclipsed by a far keener and more contemporary conflict. At the end of this month, the world football authority, Fifa, will accept the final bids for the right to host the 2002 World Cup. Since Mexico threw in the towel earlier this year, there have been only two candidates: South Korea and Japan.

An enormous amount is at stake, both in terms of money and international prestige. The World Cup is likely to bring $4bn (pounds 2.6bn) to its host country in ticket sales, broadcasting rights, and tourist revenues, as well as jobs, an invigorated infrastructure, and valuable international exposure.

But at this stage, the financial benefits of victory have been overshadowed by the chagrin of potential defeat. The first World Cup of the 21st century will also be the first held in Asia, and the battle to host it is turning into a grudge match between two of the continent's most fractious near neighbours. As Dr Chung says: "Football is the most nationalistic sport. When they line up before a game and the national anthem is playing, I always feel it's like soldiers going into battle."

The tension is all the keener for the fact that the two sides are so evenly matched. The Japanese, true to form, are relying on meticulous planning, elite personnel, and vast sums of money. They began their prepar- ations early, in 1989, and are riding a wave of soccer enthusiasm generated by the J-League, the country's first professional tournament, which began just two years ago.

Heavyweight ambassadors have been lined up - an imperial prince, several former prime ministers, and Gary Lineker have all lent their voices to the bid. Fifteen stadiums, seating crowds of up to 70,000, have either been built or begun. In terms of economic clout, tourist facilities and public transport, Japan is unmatched.

But after a late start, Dr Chung and his countrymen have been fighting a plucky rear-guard action. South Korea has less money to throw into its bid (an estimated $35m, compared to Japan's $50m) but in sporting terms, its claim looks a lot stronger. Japan has never qualified for a World Cup; South Korea leads Asian countries with five appearances.

Japan, on the other hand, has improved its game enormously in recent years and beat South Korea in the final of the last Asian Games. Seoul proved its mettle by hosting a successful Olympics in 1988 - but Tokyo hosted its Olympics 31 years ago, and has decades of international sporting events to its credit ... Thus the arguments are punted back and forth across the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

South Korea has also played a risky geopolitical card, insisting it will use the World Cup to promote unification with North Korea. The Japanese point out that by 2002 the two Koreas are as likely to be at war as they are to be fielding a joint football team. Another possibility, floated by politicians and journalists on both sides, is the possibility of Japan and Korea jointly hosting the competition.

Last year's US World Cup, after all, was successfully played over a wider area than Japan and Korea combined. But the respective sporting organisations have rejected this. Which would host the opening ceremony and the final, for instance? A squabble-ridden joint World Cup, one suspects, could do even more harm to bilateral relations than the prospect of a winner and a loser. "Our pride and history demand that we beat Japan," says Koo Pyong Hwoi, the head of the South Korean bidding committee. "Otherwise we will suffer a tremendous humiliation for a long time to come."