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   June 10, 2002 | 1030 IST


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Politics dominate US-Korea clash

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In a match heavy with political overtones, co-hosts South Korea take on the United States on Monday in one of the most eagerly awaited showdowns of the World Cup finals.

The clash brings together two teams that fulfilled their potential in their first games of a tournament that has been full of surprises and thrills -- none more emotional than Japan's first-ever World Cup finals victory, 1-0 over Russia, on Sunday.

South Korea, who like Japan have opened the eyes of fans unaware of Asia's growing soccer prowess, breezed past Poland 2-0 while the United States recorded one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history by deservedly beating Portugal 3-2.

Portugal have a chance to get their campaign back on track on Monday, day 11 of the month-long tournament, when they take on Poland in Chonju, South Korea, while Tunisia tackle Belgium in a group H match in Oita, western Japan.

But all eyes on the Korean peninsular will be on the group D clash in Daegu, with extra spice added by the ambivalence of South Korean attitudes towards the United States, which has 37,000 troops based in South Korea to ward off invasion by communist North Korea.

More than 54,000 Americans died fighting on South Korea's side in the 1950-53 Korean War, earning the respect and gratitude of the older generations.

But younger South Koreans are more critical and an array of leftist student groups and opponents of the military bases are planning to use the game in Taegu to stage anti-American rallies.

Anti-U.S. sentiment has been fed by violent crimes by American soldiers and environmental problems at the bases, as well as disputes over policy toward North Korea, which U.S. President George W. Bush has branded part of an "axis of evil".

Sport has already become ensnarled once this year with the anti-American feelings that national pride provokes in some Koreans.

When local skating favourite Kim Dong-sung was disqualified at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February, leaving American Apolo Anton Ono to take gold, South Korean media blamed a U.S. conspiracy.

Taking no chances, South Korea plans to deploy tens of thousands of police in Seoul and Taegu for Monday's match.

To keep the numbers from swelling even further, President Kim Dae-jung, the team's cheerleader-in-chief, will not attend.

"There will be special organisation that is much tougher than all the matches before," Walter Gagg, the head of security at world soccer's governing body, FIFA, told reporters in Seoul.

The September 11 attacks on the United States have prompted unprecedented security at the finals, which South Korea is co-hosting with Japan, with 500 security personnel assigned to the U.S. team alone.

"The fact that the president of Korea is not attending the game due to security reasons means they are very concerned," Gagg said.

As if the stakes were not high enough, South Korea will be driven on by a desire not to be outshone by Japan, who are well-placed to advance to the second round after beating Russia.

The historic win sent Japanese fans into a frenzy and touched off rioting in Moscow that left at least one man dead.


Portugal, seeking to redeem themselves after the shock of losing to the United States, are likely to opt for safety-first against Poland knowing that a defeat for either team would send the losers packing.

"The fact that whoever loses will go home is tough," midfielder Rui Costa said.

With a talented side, orchestrated by FIFA player of the year Luis Figo, Portugal reached the last four of the 2000 European Championship but they now know they probably need to beat Poland and South Korea to reach the second round.

"The conditions are there for a great game of football, and for enormous will-power, by one team or the other, to win," Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira said.

Polish coach Jerzy Engel said Portugal were unlikely to play as poorly as they did against the United States.

"They were very good two years ago at the European championships, and very unlucky to lose there to France," he said.


Belgium will be looking again to skipper Marc Wilmots, playing in his fourth World Cup, for inspiration against Tunisia.

The 33-year-old's acrobatic overhead goal in Belgium's 2-2 opening draw against Japan was his 27th in 68 appearances for the national team, an impressive number for a player who usually plays as an attacking midfielder.

"He is always a presence on the pitch and also off the pitch," said Belgium coach Robert Waseige.

Tunisia lost 2-0 to Russia in their opening game and know another defeat would probably consign them to their third first-phase exit in as many appearances at World Cup finals.

Coach Ammar Souayah, as well as his players, is on a steep learning curve.

"Against a strong and proven team, the smallest error costs dear," Souayah said, rueing an error by goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel that led to Russia's opening goal.

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