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   31 May, 2002 | 1730 IST



France get the blues

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Asia launches first Cup in style

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Brian Williams

Asia lifted the curtain on its first soccer World Cup on Friday, with an opening ceremony blending hi-tech and tradition and calls from the hosts for global peace and an end to the scourge of terrorism.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea, co-hosts whose relations have been strained by the legacy of Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula, joined hands to launch the month-long tournament in South Korea's capital Seoul.

South Korea's president, Kim Dae-jung, officially opened the festival of football in the city's 64,000-seat main stadium ahead of the opening match between champions France and first-timers Senegal.

A scene from the opening ceremony"The whole world will become one, regardless of race and religion, through soccer matches," Kim told the packed stadium and a live television audience estimated at at least 500 million.

"I hope the whole world will reaffirm the precious value of world peace and security and the overall prosperity of human beings," he said, speaking in Korean.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, leader of a country still deeply mistrusted by many Koreans for its harsh military occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, looked on.

Underscoring the message of peace, the two men joined hands and raised them aloft.

The elaborate opening ceremony, staged at a cost of $8 million, included 32 giant triangular drums -- one for each team taking part -- and a symbolic coming together of the Japanese and South Korean flags.

As well as projecting the themes of harmony and understanding, the ceremony was also a chance for South Korea to burnish its international image.

It annoys South Koreans, who pride themselves on their high-tech telephones and super-fast Internet access, that many people abroad identify their country only with Cold War tensions and a fondness for eating dogmeat.

Unlike the grand opening spectacle of the Olympic Games, Friday's opening ceremony was a 30-minute affair.

The ceremony had 2,300 performers, half of them soldiers in traditional folk costume, launch into a celebration of Korean culture and cutting-edge technology.

Features included 32 giant triangular drums -- one for each team taking part -- space-age "digital dancers" descending onto the field from cables, and a symbolic coming together of the Japanese and South Korean flags.

France are 7-2 favourites to retain their world crown, which they won on home soil in 1998, followed by Argentina at 4-1.

Apart from being the first co-hosted World Cup, the finals are the first to be held outside Europe and the Americas.

It is also the richest World Cup on record.

Television broadcasters have paid more than $800 million to show the tournament, 10 times what was paid for the 1998 event in France. Fees from sponsors eager to tap a huge audience are likely to double the television revenue.

With so much at stake, South Korea is taking no chances with security at the tournament, the world's biggest sporting event since the September 11 suicide attacks on the United States.

Some 420,000 police will be on guard, anti-aircraft missiles have been deployed near the stadiums and fighter jets will scour the skies.

"This is the World Cup of Safety," Prime Minister Lee Han-dong told Reuters on Thursday.

Seoul was in holiday mood in the hours before the game. The streets were garlanded with footballs in all guises -- as lanterns, as cakes, as bouncing digital images and even as pork chops -- and the official song of the month-long finals, "Live Together Forever", blared endlessly.

The theme tune has clearly fallen on deaf ears lately in the ranks of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, which has been tearing itself apart over allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement levelled against its president, Sepp Blatter.

Blatter easily won re-election on Wednesday despite the controversy and followed up on Friday by tightening his grip on the organisation.

FIFA said Blatter's rivals had agreed to halt legal action against the 66-year-old Swiss and that general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who compiled a dossier of allegations against the president, would step down after the World Cup.

But the dispute came back to haunt Blatter during the opening ceremony, when he had to appeal for fair play during his welcoming speech when some sections of the crowd jeered and whistled.


The main wrinkle in preparations has been the perennial World Cup problem of fans complaining they had not received tickets they had paid for.

In contrast, Japanese fears of an influx of hooligans have so far proved misplaced. British police advising their opposite numbers on how to handle boisterous fans have had little to do.

"No arrests, I'm very pleased to say," Ron Hogg, the chief of the British police squad, told reporters in Tokyo. "But clearly we anticipate that fans will begin to come in in increasing numbers today and tomorrow and they should be far more visible."

Over the next two weeks, there will be as many as 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 port city of Yokohama on June 30.

For the first time, FIFA will fine players if they receive red or yellow cards during the finals. Diving -- faking a foul -- and shirt-pulling will lead to a fine of $1,280.

In another innovation, FIFA said players would undergo blood tests in a bid to find banned drugs in their bodies.

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