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South Korea Thirsts for World Cup

Seoul vies vehemently with Japan to host the 2002 soccer finals

To get an idea of how intensely South Korea wants to host the 2002 World Cup finals, you need only to have attended a recent exhibition soccer match between the national team and the Italian powerhouse, AC Milan.

Some 60,000 Koreans, many of them bare-chested, with "2002" painted on their bodies, cheered their team on to a 3-2 victory, shaking inflatable bats and waving national flags. The event, held in the same stadium that hosted the 1988 summer olympics, was broadcast by ESPN to Europe.

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But at least one other contender in the race wants to host the world's most popular sporting event: Japan.

Perhaps this explains why most South Koreans consider this contest to be more than just a game. "Personally, I don't like Japan," says waitress Kim Mee Kyong.

This uncharacteristic bluntness stems from Korea's troubled relationship with Japan, its colonial master from 1910 to 1945. Although Korea gained its independence just over 50 years ago, conflicts flare up regularly between the two nations. In February a diplomatic row erupted when both countries claimed sovereignty over a set of rocky islets. A longer running matter is Korea's demands for compensation for women used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

And the competition to host the 2002 World Cup isn't just for tourist dollars. It is a matter of national face.

The country has plastered "2002" on everything from airplanes to business cards, and its diplomats and company executives have been courting who they can for months, in an emotional contest pitting South Korea against Japan.

When the executive board of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world's governing soccer body, meets in Zurich, on June 1 it will base their votes on factors that include a country's passion for soccer, its organizing ability, and affordability.

Seoul has offered to build 11 new stadiums and is renovating five existing ones. It has also offered to donate its entire share of profits to FIFA organizations to promote soccer development. International attention garnered by winning the bid would spread South Korea's name around the world, boosting business in the same way the 1988 Olympics did.

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Japan has made equivalent offers, but fans say South Korea is more of a soccer country: Its national team has made it to the World Cup final rounds four times, while Japan never has. "We have the best soccer team in Asia," boasts Kim Nung Yil, a bank clerk.

South Koreans feel they deserve it, and will probably be surprised if they don't get it. While Seoul beat out a bid by the Japanese city of Nagoya for the 1988 Olympics, media reports say the decision might be a close one.

Some in South Korea have suggested dividing the games between the two countries. While South Korea would settle for it officially, most people here think it would prolong the rivalry. But even better than cohosting with Japan, some South Koreans say, would be to do it jointly with North Korea. "If we share it with Pyongyang, it can bring peace," says Park Jong Soon, a store owner in Seoul, who says sharing the event would contribute to a peaceful reconciliation.

And while the isolated, Stalinist regime had initially expressed interest, it yesterday declined to be involved.

Ask how they would feel if Japan won the bid, many South Koreans wince a bit and say it would be bad. They then smile again and say it just won't happen.

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