> Sports > 2002 FIFA WORLD CUP 

   June 4, 2002 | 1330 IST



France get the blues

  More Slide Shows

Japan expects -- but not too much

E-Mail this report to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on  HP Laserjets

Sports papers blared their encouragement for Japan's national soccer team on Tuesday but with hours to go before their World Cup opener against Belgium, most fans were doing a good job of containing their excitement.

The late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said people were wrong to view soccer as a matter of life and death. No, Shankly said, it's more important than that.

Not in buttoned-down Japan.

It was as if the country was loosening its tie and politely waving a flag. But it wasn't about to tear its shirt off and yell encouragement. That's not the Japanese way.

"I want them to try their best," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters at his office, according to Kyodo news agency. "I believe it better for us not to put too much pressure on the team."

A spokeswoman said she wasn't even sure whether Koizumi would make it to Saitama, a commuter town just north of Tokyo. "He's got lots of work to do so we'll see how it works out," she said.

Soccer does not play the same role as social safety valve in Japan as it does in Europe and Latin America, the game's heartlands.

Argentina is in the throes of an economic and political crisis but Buenos Aires tossed aside its cares and went wild after the national team's 1-0 victory over Nigeria on Sunday.

Japan has been stuck in the economic and political doldrums for over a decade but it is hard to imagine a good run by the Blues lifting spirits in the same way that France's victory on home soil in the 1998 competition gave a tangible boost to national confidence.

Shogo Funatsu, who works at a Tokyo health club, was hoping like many others that Japan would at least avoid the ignominy of their World up debut four years ago when they were eliminated after three defeats and just one goal.

"I think it's important because it's our first game and we've never beaten any country before in the World Cup," he said. "I think it'll be good if we can get a point tonight."


Passion -- the title of the autobiography of Japan's French manager, Philippe Troussier -- might be lacking in a nation that in any case prefers baseball to soccer, but anticipation has been rising nonetheless.

Even the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a staid financial daily, put a picture -- albeit small and black-and-white -- of two of the team's key players on its front page, midfielders Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono.

"Japan will surely win," blared a headline in Sports Nippon, a tabloid, alongside a photo of a determined Nakata.

Soccer fever is already running fairly high in the northern city of Sapporo, which has staged two games in the tournament so far. But Tadatsugu Ueda, who works at rental-car company, said there would be a big step-up with the Japan-Belgium game.

"Things will heat up more when Japan play," said Ueda, 38, who admits he's not much of a soccer fan.

Back in Tokyo, 78-year-old Teruyoshi Tasaki is trying to get into the swing of soccer, but says he finds it hard to get inside the players' minds.

"But I'll probably be excited by the time we play the last match," he said.

Back to top
(c) Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.


(c) 2002 India Limited. All Rights Reserved.