Favourites Argentina arrive in Japan
George Nishiyama and Alastair Himmer
World Cup fever moved up a notch in Japan on Thursday as twice winners Argentina touched down and the joint hosts awaited the announcement of their squad.
A barrage of camera flashes greeted the Argentine players as they arrived at Narita airport near Tokyo, hoping to ease the pain of their nation's economic crisis.
The players, including Manchester United midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, AS Roma striker Gabriel Batistuta and Lazio's Hernan Crespo, were immediately whisked away to their training camp in Fukushima prefecture, about 200 kilometres north of Tokyo.
The trickle of teams arriving in Japan will turn into a flood over the next few days as national squads and thousands of fans gather for the world's biggest sporting event, being co-hosted for the first time with South Korea.
Costa Rica arrived on Monday and Saudi Arabia and Senegal were expected later on Thursday.
The Central Americans, appearing in their second World Cup finals, received a blow when captain Reynaldo Parks was ruled out of the tournament on Thursday.
Parks, who aggravated a knee injury during a training session in Suzuka, will be replaced by Pablo Chinchilla.
"I thought it would be okay to play but it is just going to cause trouble for the team if I am not 100 percent," the defender said.
Japanese fans were braced for Friday's announcement of their World Cup squad, with anxiety growing over the team's chances following a 3-0 defeat by non-qualifiers Norway and a growing injury list.
French coach Philippe Troussier, well used to having his selections dissected by the Japanese media, at least had some good news with the return of Shimizu S-Pulse defender Ryuzo Morioka.
Morioka, who captained Japan to their second Asian Cup triumph in 2000, has recovered from a hamstring injury he picked up in pre-season training.
"I will choose the squad on the basis of who is fit for our first game against Belgium on June 4, not May 17. Just like England did with (David) Beckham," Troussier said.
Troussier himself will be on the other side of the world when the Japan Football Association (JFA) announces the squad as he watches World champions France play Japan's first-round rivals Belgium on Saturday.
Unless Troussier has a surprise up his sleeve, his comments over the past two weeks will mean World Cup heartbreak for Hiroshi Nanami of Iwata.
The former Venezia midfielder, voted Player of the Tournament at the Asian Cup, has played just a handful of games for Jubilo in his latest comeback from knee surgery.
Japan play Belgium, Russia and Tunisia in World Cup group H, which was regarded as "manageable" by the Japanese media until the 3-0 defeat in Oslo provided a dose of perspective.
South Korea still faces problems off the pitch as the threat of political and industrial unrest during the tournament refuses to go away.
President Kim Dae-jung has asked his prime minister to meet opposition party members and labour unions to urge restraint.
"(Presidential) Blue House officials will put every effort to make sure there will be no collective action from either labour or other interest groups during the cup," a presidential spokesman said in a statement.
Union groups had threatened to launch nationwide rallies to coincide with the tournament in a bid to push for higher wages and better working conditions.
In another development on Thursday it was announced that smoking will be banned at World Cup stadiums to comply with an agreement between FIFA and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the tournament would be tobacco-free.
"Sport is a celebration of life...Tobacco products, on the other hand, degrade life and cause disease and death," the WHO said on its website.