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   27 May, 2002 | 1600 IST


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Japan slow to generate Cup fever

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Scott McDonald

By the time the World Cup final is played in the port city of Yokohama on June 30, Japan's national team will be long gone from the tournament and with them possibly much of the interest in soccer from the country.

Already, with just days until Friday's opening kick-off to the month-long tournament that puts normal life on hold in much of the world, there is still little excitement being generated in Japan, the co-hosts of the World Cup with South Korea.

Visitors arriving at the country's main airport in Narita just outside Tokyo are greeted by the usual immigration and baggage signs but hardly any posters for the World Cup.

Japanese fans wearing England shirts before the friendly between England and Cameroon on Sunday. [Photo Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images]In Yokohama on the southern edge of Tokyo, where more than 72,000 people will fill the country's largest stadium for the final, there are few World Cup signs and less excitement.

For the baseball-mad Japanese, the key to any "cup fever" will be how well the Japan team does, particularly if they can avoid a repeat of four years ago when it was three losses and a quick flight home from the World Cup in France.

"My wildest hope would, of course, be that we win the World Cup title. My greatest fear is that Japan is eliminated after the first three matches and the Japanese fans will lose interest in the World Cup," said star midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata.

Nakata, who plays for Parma in Italy's Serie A, is Japan's highest-profile player, and anything he does, such as dye his hair red, sets a national trend.

"In Italy, the first thing they think about is football, but in Japan that is not the case," Nakata told the London-based Observer newspaper.

In Japan, the first thing most sports fans think about is baseball, which since it was introduced in the 19th century from the United States has become part of the national fabric with the country slowing down even for high school games.


Soccer experts think it will be an achievement if Japan can advance out of group H, which includes Belgium, Russia and Tunisia, but don't see them going further than the second round.

"Personally, I'm very excited, but I don't think the general public is very excited about it," said Takashi Ohji, 36-year-old soccer fan who works for a U.S. industrial company in Tokyo.

"Besides soccer fans, the Japanese people mainly care how the national team performs, but otherwise, the interest is not that great," he said.

A random survey in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last week showed that only one in three Japanese were interested in the World Cup.

"There's about another week until it starts, right?" said Yasuhiro Kato, a 32-year-old office worker, when asked how he felt about the tournament.

"I'm not a soccer fan to begin with. I'm aware that it's a global event, and hear about hotels being booked and the possibility of hooligans. But I'm just not interested," he said.

However, others, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, were getting into the spirit.

"He's pretty excited about the World Cup," Misako Kaji, a spokeswoman for Koizumi, said on Monday.

"He went to see Japan's friendly against Costa Rica and is going to attend the opening in South Korea, and he plans to attend the final match, where he hopes to see South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung," she said.

Another problem with generating interest in Japan is that, unlike in South Korea where matches will be in Seoul, the capital Tokyo is not a venue.

But the excitement has been growing at some of the other venues in Japan, said Ichiro Tomooka, a 33-year-old Tokyo office worker who travels within the country on business.

He said that on a trip to Oita, one of the 10 Japanese venues, there were flags and billboards reminding visitors the tournament was coming to the city.

"The store lady at a kiosk there even chatted to me about soccer and I had not even said anything," he said.

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