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   June 19, 2002 | 1500 IST


Umit Davala
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Requiem for Japan's dream

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Japan applauded its boys in blue on Wednesday for a gallant World Cup performance that brought a sparkle of sunshine to the gloomy land.

But there was no denying the tinge of envy of South Korea’s success and the dismay about a shattered dream.

Japan's 1-0 second round defeat by Turkey was an anti-climax in a soccer drama which had enthralled the nation.

It also stood in sharp contrast to South Korea's thrilling extra-time victory over Italy. The historic win by the tournament co-hosts and Japan's long-time rivals triggered a wild night of celebrations and an outpouring of Korean patriotism.

"South Korea did so well against Italy, who were one of the favourites to win the tournament," an impressed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told a gathering of publishers and editors.

Shinji Ono "It was an amazing match."

Still, Japan's media and fans lauded their own team and French coach Phillipe Troussier for exceeding expectations and erasing the dismal memory of Japan's World Cup debut four years ago, when they suffered three losses and scored only one goal.

"You couldn't reach the best eight, but you played gallantly against a tough opponent and gave courage to all of Japan. Thank you," said the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

"The tireless battle of these youths -- with their hair dyed red and gold and silver -- showed us a future in which this country is energetic and diverse," the paper added.


Japan's soccer prowess on the world stage had provided a rare chance to cheer in a country mired in economic stagnation and political stalemate for much of the past decade.

"The team's success has given a ray of hope and encouragement to the Japanese people, who have lost confidence lately," said an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. "We have indeed been given vitality by our young soccer players."

Others argued there were deeper lessons to be learned.

"To be independent, to take responsibility, to be unified, to be patient, to be forgiving, to be inspired, to reflect, to persevere and to give thanks," was the list offered by metropolitan daily Tokyo Shimbun.

"The pitch, where the god of soccer dwells, has become a giant mirror reflecting the 'backbone' of this country."

Some fans, though, shared the sentiment voiced by Japan's playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata - Japan could have been a contender, at least for one more match.

"Of course, it was one of our goals to get through the first match but it is a shame to lose now," said Nakata. "I think we could have advanced even further in this World Cup."

Among the elements blamed for the defeat were complacency, a lack of battle-hardened combativeness, and puzzling decisions by Troussier on whom to play where and when.

"Why did it end this way, when Japan could do so well?" wrote sports commentator Hidehiko Shimizu.

"Did they fail to show their true strength, or was this their true strength?"


The bitter past and present mistrust which haunts the two Asian co-hosts means some fans have watched their rival's performance with mixed emotions, especially in South Korea where memories of Japan's harsh 1910-1945 colonial rule run deep.

But while some older Japanese said their home team's defeat was all the more bitter because of South Korean's victory, other younger fans did not begrudge their co-hosts their success.

Crowds of youthful Japanese supporters joined ethnic Korean residents in their celebrations in Tokyo late on Tuesday, hugging, crying and chanting "Ni-ppon, Ko-re-a, Ni-ppon, Ko-re-a" in a display of co-host camaraderie.

"Korea had led the way in Asian soccer but then Japan had seemed to be overtaking them," said microchip salesman Tsutomu Fujisada. "Now Japan has to take up that challenge again.

"But of course I'll support Korea. It was a fantastic match."

Homemaker Naho Iimi echoed the thought.

"Of course it's not as exciting as when I was rooting for Japan, but they are the co-hosts and I want them to win."

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