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Thursday, April 5, 2001

SPORTS SCOPE

Halfhearted effort at hosting half a World Cup


Why not let South Korea host the whole thing?

With just over 400 days remaining before the kickoff for the 2002 World Cup, one senses indifference in Japan among the people whose nation will cohost the tournament.

Outside of a few countdown clocks near major train stations and some World Cup souvenir shops, there is nary a sign that this major event will be hitting these shores just over a year from now in May and June.

Couple this with the level of competence of the local organizers (JAWOC) and it is not too hard to imagine a major letdown ensuing.

What I am seeing is a halfhearted effort at hosting half a World Cup.

This is not the first time I have seen Japanese organizers just go through the motions after gaining the right to host a big event.

The Tokyo Dome does it every time the NFL plays here.

Having been involved in promoting professional sporting events for many years, I can tell you that every event stands or falls on its own merits.

The World Cup, being what it is, will still have sellout crowds at the stadiums, bring pageantry and excitement for a few weeks to Japan, and then move on to join a long list of other events which have blown in and out of this country like a typhoon.

Will there be any long-lasting effect on the game in Japan?

Not really.

Japan already has a professional league and the simple fact that the World Cup will be played here won't boost the level of play or players in the J. League or on the national team.

Just remember the gulf between the true soccer playing nations and Japan is about as wide as the Nile. One need look no further than last month's 5-0 humiliation by France to get the picture.

Most of the people from Japan who will attend World Cup games will likely be no more than modest soccer fans and, more likely, people with a rock-concert mentality who just want to be a part of something fun. Nothing wrong with that.

Something that needs to be kept in mind, however, is that soccer is far from Japan's most popular sport. In a recent survey by a major national newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 55 percent of those responding said baseball was their favorite sport.

That leaves only 45 percent for every other sport, and certainly not all of those consider soccer their favorite.

One wonders how the promotion for the World Cup will stand up to media coverage of the debuts of Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in the major leagues? Let's face it, folks, if Ichiro or Shinjo starts tearing the cover off the ball, it is going to make Nomo-mania look like nothing.

How confident is Major League Baseball about promoting its product in Japan? It just announced this week that it will likely open the 2002 season in Japan, just weeks before the World Cup will begin.

When Japan initially decided to apply to host the World Cup, it appeared as if it would be unchallenged in Asia in its bid to land the event. But alas, when Japan failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States, South Korea saw an opening and threw its hat in the ring.

When decision time came in 1996, soccer's world governing body, FIFA, in an effort to retain harmony in the region, proposed the cohosting of the event.

Japan, which could have rejected this idea and forced a winner-take-all vote, instead caved in and went along with the plan. A major mistake, no doubt. A move that reflects the culture, where everybody is more concerned about saving face than having the courage to stand by their convictions.

Fast-forward five years and instead of gathering momentum as the big event approaches, there seems to be a general malaise prevailing within JAWOC and the Japanese public toward the World Cup.

So many mistakes have been made thus far that it is almost impossible to detail all of them, but here are a few:* Instead of hiring senior executives solely to work on the World Cup, JAWOC has taken high-level staff on loan from prominent Japanese companies. These folks aren't going to go all-out to make the event the best it can possibly be, because it is, after all, not their real job.* The promotional campaign has been nothing short of a joke. Why aren't the stars of the Japan national team making appearances throughout the country to promote the event? When the mascots were unveiled for the World Cup a couple of months ago, instead of having Shunsuke Nakamura or some other big-name player show off the designs, they had it done by a 70-year-old executive. Not what I call a great photo opportunity.* The ticket application system borders on farcical. Every person who applied in the first round had to provide the names of the people they would be taking with them to the games. This is about the craziest thing I have ever heard of. Does anybody in their right mind think that this idea is going to hold up on game day? Can you imagine the lines and mass chaos if they start trying to ID every fan entering every stadium?* Last week, JAWOC cut the budget for the World Cup by $22 million and claimed it was due to Japan's economic downturn. Funny how they never took into account this might occur when formulating the original budget, isn't it? After announcing the budget cut, JAWOC then said it would turn to the 10 municipalities hosting World Cup matches and ask them to donate 100 million yen each to help make up the shortfall. Gee, I wonder where that money is going to come from? The taxpayers is a good guess.* There appears to be the very real likelihood that in certain cities hosting World Cup matches, there will be a lack of qualified volunteers to assist with the event. Wonderful. Just what the country needs, a bunch of soccer fans here to attend the matches, who can't get the necessary information or instructions they need.* FIFA was supposed to open an office in Japan to help support the World Cup. With 13 months to go, there is no office (or sign that there ever will be one). Whenever FIFA holds a meeting about the World Cup, it does it in Switzerland. As far as its executives are concerned, traveling back and forth to Japan and South Korea is about the same distance as going to the Moon.

All in all, the way things are shaping up, it looks like the equivalent of a train wreck is a real possibility. The image of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano keeps coming to mind when thinking of the World Cup.

The trouble in Nagano started with the promise by the organizers to pay the travel and lodging for all the competitors on the eve of the vote to decide the host city in 1991. Of course, they reneged on this promise later, in truly disgraceful fashion.

The lack of foresight by the organizers in Nagano was astounding. Just a sample of some of their mistakes:* Running out of souvenir T-shirts and hats on the first weekend of a three-weekend event.* Not considering the overwhelming interest that Japanese fans would have in the team jump events in Hakuba, resulting in many people with tickets not even being able to reach the venue -- no matter how early they left home.* Having volunteers let fans into competitions with tickets that weren't even for the right event. And on and on.

Think Japan has a chance to host the 2008 Olympics in Osaka?

I hope I'm wrong about this, but after the comedy routine in Nagano, I would say about as much chance as a snowball in hell.

The bottom line is that what is worth doing, is worth doing right. This arrogant attitude among Japanese organizers that nobody can tell them how to do things in Japan is just ridiculous.

What they don't realize is that there is a price to pay for this. People who organize these events, like the IOC and FIFA, have long memories.

It should be interesting to see how it all plays out in the next year, but judging from the track record so far, it appears that settling for hosting half a World Cup may in the end turn out to be a half-baked idea.



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