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|August 28, 2000||
Japan, South Korea look to boost Cup hopes
Japan and South Korea have their eyes on a medal at the Sydney Olympic soccer tournament, hoping for a vital confidence boost as they prepare to host the biggest soccer show of them all.
The Olympics are a high-profile stepping stone for the Asian rivals on the way to the 2002 World Cup, which they will jointly host, and each is aiming for at least a quarterfinal spot.
Japan's national coach, Frenchman Philippe Troussier, said the target is to equal the achievement of the 1968 team, which claimed the bronze in Mexico City. That is the only Olympic soccer medal ever won by an Asian team.
Unlike some more illustrious soccer nations, generating enthusiasm for the Olympic tournament is not a problem in Japan.
Some 55,000 fans turned up each time for the Olympic qualifiers against Thailand and Kazakhstan.
"The Japanese people like the Olympic Games very much; everybody has very, very high enthusiasm for the Olympics," said Shunichiro Okano, president of the Japan Football Association.
"Even in the qualifying play in Japan the National Stadium was full up. The FA have to make the best preparations to get good results."
Okano said the JFA had a duty to the fans to prepare the team as thoroughly as possible, hence the suspension of the domestic league from August 19 to November 8.
Sydney is being seen as an important chance for Japan's promising youngsters to get a taste of a high-quality international tournament two years ahead of the main event.
The national under-20 team dazzled the opposition last year when, coached by Troussier, they got all the way to the final of the FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria, finishing runners-up to Spain.
"We have many outstanding youngsters, but they haven't got enough international experience," said Okano, who is also an International Olympic Committee member.
"While the Olympic Games in themselves are, of course, very important, on the other hand it's a good opportunity for the young players to get this kind of international experience.
Japan will send their under-23 squad to Sydney, and they are being highly rated after the performance in Nigeria.
Japan's key man in Sydney will be AS Roma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who also played in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and at the France World Cup, where his displays led to a $3.3 million transfer to Italy's Perugia from Japan.
The South Koreans, too, will have one eye on Sydney and the other on 2002.
Lee Young Woo, the assistant manager of the Korea Football Association's international department, said national coach Huh Jung Moo was using the Olympics to help prepare his team for the World Cup.
"For Korea, the Olympic Games is the first step towards the 2002 World Cup and even further," said Lee.
"I think a lot of the players will be the same for Korea in the Olympics and World Cup because we have some very young players, about a third of them from the under-19 national team.
"The football fans in Korea are very eager to watch the games on TV, and it's important we play well and give them confidence for the 2002 World Cup."
The South Koreans are still looking for their own version of Nakata, and the latest candidate is attacking midfielder Lee Chun-soo, who is in his first year at university.
"He's fast, his skill is improving and he can dribble past many opponents," said Lee.
Other important team members are striker Lee Dong Gook, a former Asian Young Player of the Year, and midfield organiser Kim Do-kyun.
South Korea's first round opponents are Spain, Morocco and Chile in Group B. Japan face South Africa, Slovakia and Brazil in Group D.
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