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   June 10, 2002 | 1330 IST


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Japan parties after historic win

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They danced in the streets and the subways, they hugged strangers and they partied until dawn.

For once, Japan had cause to celebrate and it seized the moment after nabbing the nation's first World Cup victory, nearly a half century after an initially timid try at world class soccer.

"Ni-ppon, Ni-ppon, Ni-ppon, Ni-ppon, Ni-ppon."

The chant-like headline in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper on Monday was an ecstatic echo of the pride and joy that flooded through the 66,000 crowd after Japan's 1-0 victory over Russia.

The win put Japan on the brink of a place in the second round of the tournament which it is co-hosting with South Korea.

"History was made in Yokohama...A new page has been turned by the young 'Troussier Japan'," the Mainichi said, referring to the Japan side by the name of its French coach, Philippe Troussier.

"Japan's fervent wish of advancing to the second round is drawing close to coming true."

World Cup fever had been slow to catch fire in a land where baseball holds pride of place among sports fans, but a thrilling 2-2 draw against Belgium last week ignited hopes that Japan could turn in a respectable showing on the global soccer stage.

On Sunday at Yokohama International Stadium, cheered on by waves of blue-jerseyed fans waving "Hinormaru" national flags, Japan went one better, courtesy of a 51st minute strike from man-of-the-match Junichi Inamoto.

The long-sought victory, four years after Japan's dismal World Cup debut in France and 48 years after a national team first attempted to make it to the tournament, triggered a carnival of ecstasy among fans around the nation.


In Yokohama, joy burst through traditional Japanese reserve as cars honked horns and blue waves of supporters embraced, shouting "We won, We won!"

Some facing jobs the next day trudged dutifully home, but others in Yokohama, in Tokyo nightspots, in the western metropolis of Osaka and elsewhere partied until dawn, dousing each other with beer, singing and igniting fireworks.

One young man celebrated by baring all, but his revelry was cut short when police arrested him around 1.00 a.m. (1600 GMT).

In Osaka, Inamoto's home town, some 140 excited fans -- unable to contain their glee at his winning goal -- leapt off bridges into the Dotombori River, media reported.

Dogged by a decade of economic stagnation and plagued by political sclerosis, Japan can use a reason to cheer.

So can Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, his once sky-high popularity shredded by doubts about his leadership.

Japan coach Philippe Troussier now has a support rate of 80 percent according to a TV poll on Monday -- about double that of Koizumi's rating with voters.

"I was inspired," said an overjoyed Koizumi after the game, during which he alternately leapt to his feet to cheer and slapped a blue megaphone in frustration at lost chances.

The match was watched on television by a near-record two-thirds of the households in eastern Japan -- just below the rating for a Japan women's volleyball final against the Soviet Union in the 1964 Olympics, monitoring firm Video Research said.


Japan's joy was a stark contrast to the dark mood in Moscow, where hundreds of drunken soccer fans rampaged through the Russian capital, leaving one man reported dead from the worst violence to hit the city centre in more than a decade.

Geopolitics was doubtless far from most Japanese minds, but some of the media bliss called to mind the joy when Japan's navy sank the Russian Baltic fleet in the Tsushima Straits in 1905 --a victory which heralded Japan's arrival as a world power.

"By defeating Russia, Japan has taken a big step in its soccer history," the Mainichi newspaper said.

"Forty-eight years after first challenging the World Cup...they showed their strength to the world."

Japan has already bettered its 1998 World Cup performance, where the team went home after three losses and just one goal.

But like South Korea, Japan are keen to avoid a place in the history books as the first hosts not to make the knockout stage.

While a point against Tunisia in Osaka on Friday would be enough for Japan to advance to the knockout stage, some were warning against breaking out the champagne.

"It was a tremendous performance when we really needed a win. I'm proud to be the coach of Japan at such a historic moment," said Troussier. "But when we get back to our camp we have to concentrate again on making sure we reach the second round."

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