Football: Asians threaten walk-out in 2002

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ASIAN FOOTBALL executives yesterday gave football's ruling body, Fifa, until March to avert a regional boycott of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea by giving the continent the chance of an extra berth in the finals.

After emergency talks in Bangkok, the Asian Football Confederation said it was willing to sacrifice one qualifying place because of Fifa's decision to choose two co-hosts. But the AFC said there would be a boycott - with Japan and South Korea exempted - if Fifa refused to give the third-placed Asian qualifier the chance to play-off against the top team from Oceania.

"All spoke in favour of a boycott," Peter Velappan, the AFC general secretary, said. If Asia's team won a play-off, they would have five places in the finals instead of the four, including two for the co-hosts, that Fifa proposed earlier this month.

Velappan said the 2002 finals would go ahead, no matter what the outcome of the dispute. "We will honour the responsibility of hosting the World Cup in 2002 in Japan and Korea," he said. "Japan and South Korea will play. That is definite."

"You must understand that this is a very reasonable request," Velappan added. "Let us maintain the status quo, which is three and a half, and from this we are willing to sacrifice one for the hosts, which is two and a half. So therefore what we are now asking is to restore the half seat that has been taken away from us."

The two hosts qualify automatically for the finals, so when Fifa decided Asia should have four places, including those for the hosts, Asians were outraged. At this year's World Cup, Asia had three guaranteed places, and earned another when Iran beat Australia in a play-off.

Velappan and other delegates said the 16 nations which met yesterday were unanimous, including Japan, about the boycott threat. The South Korean representative was not present at the crisis meeting, and World Cup organisers and officials in Seoul declined to comment.

The Japanese delegate, Tadao Okada, confirmed he had backed it. "Yes, we are members of the AFC and we will cooperate with AFC decisions and actions. The AFC has to retain its rights."

The delegates to the Bang-kok meeting all said they agreed Fifa's stance was unfair. "Asia has one third of the world's population. We have 46 members in Fifa, one quarter of the total. If you want a World Cup without one third of the world's population properly represented, it's unfair," said Manilal Fernando of Sri Lanka.

Asia last boycotted the World Cup 32 years ago over a similar dispute, although North Korea ignored that boycott.

"The Fifa executive committee meets in March and we demand the 4 December decision is rescinded. If the March decision is not in our favour, the AFC executive committee will meet again to take the appropriate decision," a determined Velappan added.

The Australians were also upset by Fifa's decision. The Oceania winners, usually Australia, have been asked to play off against the fifth-placed South American side, instead of an Asian team. Australia have yet to beat a leading South American country.