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 May 19, 2002 | 1805 IST

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Security tight as Argentina train

Argentina's soccer team tossed tiny, autographed balls to Japanese fans on Sunday during their first training run in the World Cup finals they are favourites to win.

But the team's top players appeared only briefly to the huge disappointment of 3,500 fans some of whom had travelled hours to see the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Gabriel Batistuta.

And security surrounding the team upset fans throughout the day.

"It was a bit disappointing," said Taku Nambu, a 25-year-old Batistuta fan who had paid 5,000 yen ($40) for admission to see the players. "I was waiting for the forwards to come to our section but they never did," he complained.

Hoping to drum up local support for their campaign, several of the squad came on to the pitch near their training camp in rural Iwaki, carrying a huge Japanese flag.

Loudspeakers blasted out the official Argentina supporters' anthem, 'Shima Uta' -- a song from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa that topped the charts in Japan 10 years ago.

Argentine supporters are hoping the familiarity of the song will encourage Japanese soccer fans to cheer for their side.

The crowd, many clad in Argentina's colours of light blue and white, cheered as the players threw the balls into the stands.


But it was not until the high-profile players appeared that the stands grew animated.

An hour into the practice, loudspeakers announced the long-awaited arrival of the starting line-up who were greeted by roaring cheers and 'Shima Uta' playing in the background.

But the top players such as Veron, Batistuta and Hernan Crespo stayed only a few minutes, and the fans were then ordered to file out.

A reception later, complete with traditional Japanese drummers and a chorus of children, was surrounded by such tight security that none of the guests could get near the players.

Sitting on fold-away chairs near the stage, under a banner reading "Vamos Argentina, directo a la Victoria!" (Let's go Argentina, straight to victory), the team listened politely and only burst into applause when the children began singing the Argentine folksong "Carnavalito".

Goalkeeper German Burgos swayed from side to side, leading the rest of the team. But after the song, the players were swiftly whisked away, signing a few autographs as they left.

Only coach Marcelo Bielsa and trainers stayed behind to enjoy the specially prepared Argentine dishes.

"It's too bad they can't stay longer," said one organiser. "So many people came such a long way to see them. I heard supporters complaining about today's event being so anti-climactic."

Argentina play their first match of the tournament on June 2 against Nigeria. They will also face Sweden and England in what many consider to be the toughest group in the finals.

The World Cup finals, beginning on May 31, are being co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

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