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Japan in need of boost to reach long-range goal

For Japan, taking part in the Umbro Cup really is more important than the result - as long as they do not get thrashed. While England are looking towards next summer's European Championship, their visitors are aiming much further ahead - to the World Cup in 2002.

Japan are one of two countries bidding for the right to host the XVIIth tournament, and a first appearance at Wembley is a major publicity coup.

It is also a boost they badly need. Two years ago Japan were considered certainties to win the bid, now South Korea, the other candidate, is closing fast.

The campaign has an edge to it. Japan and Korea have been enemies for centuries and the Japanese treatment of Koreans during the last war left a particularly bitter legacy. While Japan argue that their industrial dominance makes them the obvious first Asian host, the Koreans counter that recognition of their own fast-rising economy would be more inspirational to the region as a whole.

South Korea did put on a very successful Olympics in Seoul in 1988, but Japan feel that nationwide, their technological and transportation capabilities are better. They also have the impressively funded and supported J-League, which Gary Lineker played in.

Both countries have problems with the time difference. Japan is eight hours ahead of Europe and, since European television bankrolls the competition, the assertion at an unconvincing Japanese media-briefing this week that matches would kick off at midday European time seems unlikely.

Until the J-League was formed two years ago, football was very low down the sporting scale in Japan. Even now it ranks behind sumo wrestling and baseball. Unlike South Korea, Japan have never qualified for the World Cup, although they are improving. Japanese age-group teams - the players of 2002 - have a good record and the senior side are Asian champions.

"They would not win it in 2002, but they would be better than America were last year," said Lineker, who is supporting what he regards as "a very strong bid". Fifteen venues are proposed - although, oddly, Tokyo, the capital, is not one of them - with the likely final venue being Yokohama. Most stadiums are, at present, little more than artists' impressions.

The biggest drawback to a memorable World Cup may be Japan's insularity and cost of living. The United States put on a memorable event without a football heritage, but that was partly because almost every country was well-supported. Japan are confident they will sell out most matches, but with low immigration and frightening food and accommodation prices, few spectators will be non-Japanese.

Glenn Moore