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   June 15, 2002 | 1130 IST


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Finals shaping up as the best ever

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The greatest opening round in World Cup history started with one of the biggest upsets ever -- and they never stopped coming after that.

Now, two weeks 130 goals and 48 matches later Asia's first World Cup stands poised to top the 1970 tournament in Mexico as the best ever.

World champions France, hot pre-tournament favourites Argentina and strongly-fancied dark horses Portugal have all packed their bags and gone home.

The unheralded Mexicans, Senegalese, United States and Turkish teams are still there, as are the English, the Danes, the Spanish and the Irish.

Traditional World Cup powerhouses Brazil, Italy and Germany all survived the cull -- and so too of course, did both co-hosts.

Scenes of almost unrivalled jubilation have engulfed South Korea and Japan as the Asian countries have reached the second round for the first time ever.

The Koreans have won in the World Cup after five previous tournaments that produced four draws and 10 defeats over 48 years. Japan have won twice after losing all three matches on their debut appearance in France four years ago. Incredibly both won their qualifying groups.

Global doubt was expressed before the tournament began about whether either would win a match and many thought one or the other would become the first World Cup hosts ever to fail to get past the opening round.

They have exceeded expectations to an unlikely degree, and Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto, who spent almost all of last season in the reserves at English premier league club Arsenal, has emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon to be lauded as the player of the round.

The ticketing scandal that blighted the opening games appears to be on the wane with far fewer empty seats in the stadiums at later first round games.

The threat of hooliganism, whipped up by tabloid journalists, local politicians and excitable police commanders has failed to materialise.

The deputy mayor of Taegu in Korea who last year pleaded for English hooligans to visit his city so his police force could teach them a lesson or two, must be one of the few disappointed men in Korea. The fight on the streets hasn't happened.

The conflict was on the field where it belonged.


If the remaining 16 games of the knockout stage produce even half as many upsets as the first round then, who knows, South Korea might even meet Japan in the final in Yokohama on June 30.

Unlikely, but possible.

The same was said of Senegal beating France, of the United States defeating Portugal, of Denmark overcoming France, of Ireland drawing with Germany or even of England, so often overburdened by a false sense of expectation, beating Argentina.

The tone was set in the very first match in Seoul on May 31. World and European champions France, all sunglasses and hair gel at the airport, wafted into the tournament with 90 percent of their countrymen telling a Paris pollster they fully expected France to retain the trophy.

But Pape Bouba Diop and his Senegalese team mates had other ideas. All but two of their 23-man squad play for French clubs and were simply not overawed by their opponents' reputation and achievement. Diop got the only goal after 30 minutes.

France did not score in three matches, drawing 0-0 with Uruguay and losing 2-0 to Denmark. They went home with the worst record of any defending champion in history without a goal or a win. They were the first holders since Brazil in 1966 to go out in the first round.

The only other countries who failed to score were debutants China and the weak Saudi Arabians -- and France will now be ranked 28th out of the 32 finalists at the end of the tournament with only Tunisia, Slovenia, the Chinese and Saudis beneath them.


One day later Argentina followed France to the departure lounge at Narita Airport outside Tokyo.

Argentina cruised through the qualifiers, winning the tough South American competition by 10 points and scoring 42 goals. With the national economy in crisis, the likes of Ariel Ortega, Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone promised their countrymen a World Cup victory to alleviate their suffering.

But after beating Nigeria 1-0, Argentina stumbled out, losing to old rivals England 1-0 and then drawing 1-1 with Sweden.

Batistuta was in tears at the end, his international career over. Captain Juan Sebastian Veron was poor, Simeone a shadow of his former self. The only tiny consolation was that Batistuta joined a select band of only six men to score 10 or more goals in the finals. He might savour that achievement one day.

The end also beckons now for Portugal's 'golden generation' -- the men who as boys won world junior championships a decade or so ago. For World Player of the Year Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, Jorge Costa and Vitor Baia the moment had come.

But not as they hoped. They were 3-0 down to the U.S. in their opening match before bouncing back but still lost 3-2, beat Poland 4-0 thanks to a Pauleta hat-trick and finally went out on Friday after losing 1-0 to South Korea with nine men.

At least they left their mark with the worst foul of the tournament to date when Joao Pinto made a dangerous two-footed lunge at Park Ji-sung and was shown the red card. Beto Severo was also dismissed, as were Portugal. A sad end indeed.

So 16 survivors remain. Brazil, with 11 goals and nine points seem back to something like their best -- but have not yet been tested and face Belgium in the next round. Italy take on co-hosts South Korea and Germany meet Paraguay for the first time ever.

Any of them could yet reach the final. But so too could South Korea or Japan, who next play Turkey. Unlikely, but possible. It has been that kind of tournament.

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