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   31 May, 2002 | 1111 IST



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Asia's first World Cup set for kickoff

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Asia's first World Cup kicks off on Friday with champions France playing first-timers Senegal and hosts South Korea billing the tournament as a force for peace in a troubled world.

The 32-nation finals, the first outside Europe and the Americas and the first hosted by two countries, are the world's biggest sporting event since the September 11 suicide attacks on the United States.

President Kim Dae-jung, himself a Nobel peace prize winner, welcomed visitors to South Korea, which has said that everything is in place to ensure security at an event that attracts a global television audience of billions.

"The Korean people and I have striven to make this World Cup a global festivity inspiring the six billion people of the world with peace, harmony and hope for the future," Kim said in a message published in English-language newspapers.

His comments coincided with efforts by the United States and its European allies to talk nuclear-armed India and Pakistan back from the brink of war and to coax Israel and the Palestinians out of a bloody cycle of violence.

Hooliganism is always an issue when England play in a major soccer tournament, but South Korea, staging this year's World Cup with Japan, says the necessary security precautions for this and any other eventualities have been taken.

"This is the World Cup of Safety," Prime Minister Lee Han-dong told Reuters on Thursday on the eve of the opening match in Seoul. "It will be a secure World Cup."

Some 420,000 police will guard the soccer extravaganza in South Korea. Fighter jets will scour the skies and anti-aircraft missiles have been deployed near stadiums.

Unlike the grand opening spectacle of the Olympic Games, the World Cup's opening ceremony in Seoul will be a 30-minute affair before France and Senegal face off at 8:30 p.m. in the South Korean capital's 64,000-seat main stadium.

Staged at a cost of $8 million, the opening ceremony will bring 2,300 performers, half of them soldiers in traditional folk costume, into the arena for a celebration of Korean culture and cutting-edge technology.


Features will include 32 giant triangular drums -- to match the number of teams taking part -- space-age "digital dancers" descending onto the field from cables, and a symbolic coming together of the Japanese and South Korean flags.

Dubbed "From the East", it is designed to project the themes of communication, harmony and understanding and enhance South Korea's international image.

"When I went to London once, people asked me where Korea was and when I said it was where the 1988 Olympics were held, they remembered it," said Lee Kyung-Hwa, a choreographer of the show.

"Now I want people around the world to recognise Korea through this World Cup."

Television broadcasters have paid more than $800 million to show the tournament, 10 times what was paid for the 1998 event in France. Corporate and other sponsorship is expected to double the television revenue, making it the richest World Cup on record.

The main cloud on the horizon - both in South Korea and Japan - was the perennial World Cup problem of tickets.

In South Korea, 5,000 opening ceremony tickets were somewhere in the mail. Many people might have to pick them up at the gate.

In Japan, a growing number of foreign fans complained they had not received tickets they had paid for.

Over the next two weeks, there will be up to four matches a day in the first stage of the knockout tournament.

They will be played in 20 stadiums in Japan and South Korea -- at least twice the number used in previous cups -- with the final played in the Japanese city of Yokohama on June 30.

French hero Zinedine Zidane will miss Friday's opening match with an injured thigh. French fans are waiting nervously for news of when he will be back in action.

"Nobody can replace Zidane but we will have 11 guys on the pitch tomorrow," said France coach Roger Lemerre.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said his team's players were not overawed by playing the world champions.

"Sincerely, I don't want to make any forecast, but I'm confident and ambitious (about the World Cup)", he said.

France are the 7-2 favourites to retain their world crown, followed by Argentina at 4-1.

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