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   June 4, 2002 | 2130 IST



France get the blues

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Asian soccer comes off age

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Asian soccer came of age on Tuesday during a World Cup night crammed with passion and pride for co-hosts South Korea and Japan.

Spurred by a deafening roar from their fans in Pusan, South Korea defeated Poland 2-0 in their first win from 15 attempts on the world's biggest stage.

Earlier, Japan prompted scenes of near hysteria in the Saitama stadium during a tumultuous 2-2 draw with Belgium.

The only sour note on a day designed to showcase the Asian teams came in the first match of the day in Kwangju, South Korea, where debutants China succumbed 2-0 to tiny Costa Rica.

Against the odds, the two co-hosts preserved a World Cup record stretching back to the first tournament staged in 1930 in Uruguay. No host nation has yet lost their opening match.

The win and the draw also came against respectable European opposition. Poland lost only one of their 10 qualifiers while Belgium are the first team to make six successive World Cup finals without qualifying automatically as hosts or holder.

South Korea opened their sixth appearance in the World Cup finals with a dismal record of 10 losses and four draws in the knock-out stage of the competition. Japan lost each of their three games during their debut in France four years ago.


In Pusan, a pulsating 55,000-strong crowd, dressed predominantly in the red shirts of the Korean team, went into raptures when Hwang Sun-hong scored his 50th international goal in the 26th minute of the group D match.

They generated even more noise when Yoo Sang-chul rocketed the ball into the back of the net eight minutes into the second half.

Poland, making their first appearance in the finals for 16 years, looked clumsy and ineffective with their only real chance coming two minutes into the match when Jacek Krzynowek shot into the side netting.

The Japan-Belgium match was the most thrilling of the tournament so far.

Four goals were scored in the space of 16 minutes and the excitement reached fever pitch when Junichi Inamoto struck what appeared to be the winning goal four minutes from normal time in the group H clash. But as celebrations began throughout Japan, the goal was disallowed for an earlier foul by the midfielder.


Japan, who collected their first World Cup point, fully deserved the draw. Their energy, speed and agility disconcerted the taller, stronger and more experienced European side throughout the game.

After a goalless first half, Marc Wilmots opened the scoring for Belgium with a 57th-minute overhead kick. Takayuki Suzuki levelled two minutes later.

Inamoto gave Japan the lead in the 68th minute when he scored with his left foot after scything through the defence. The crowd was in an uproar for the next seven minutes before defender Peter Van der Heyden calmly lobbed the equaliser.

"The crowd were fantastic -- better than an extra player for the Japanese," said Belgium coach Robert Waseige.

Costa Rica crushed China's World Cup dream with a 2-0 win over the tournament debutants. The group C defeat will probably condemn China, with a population of 1.3 billion compared to Costa Rica's 3.8 million, to an early exit from the tournament.

Around 10,000 Chinese fans cheered on their team in vain as second half goals from Ronald Gomez and Mauricio Wright sealed a comfortable win for Costa Rica.

The Chinese spectators represented more than a third of the official attendance of 27,217 in the 43,000-seat stadium.

The empty seats were another embarrassment for co-hosts Japan and South Korea and world soccer's governing body FIFA.

The Japanese and South Korean governments voiced their frustration on Tuesday about the tens of thousands of empty seats which are spoiling the backdrop of soccer's most important stage.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has ordered his sports minister to tackle FIFA over ticket muddles that have left blocks of seats empty while Japanese fans fail to get tickets.

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