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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Japan's best shot is 2022 World Cup


Japan resumes its campaign for a place at the 2010 World Cup this month against Australia, but the nation's power brokers are already setting their sights on a more distant — and potentially more rewarding — edition of the tournament.

Andrew McKirdy

On Monday, FIFA will open letters of intent sent by countries hoping to stage the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, beginning a bidding process that will be resolved in December 2010. Among those sent to the world governing body's headquarters in Switzerland will be one from Japan.

And it will certainly have company. No fewer than 11 bids are expected from countries as varied as Russia, the United States, Australia, Qatar and Indonesia, marking the first time interested parties have been invited to apply for two tournaments at the same time.

Although each country is putting its name forward for either event, in reality most, including Japan, are looking to 2022. With the tournament taking place in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, logic dictates that 2018 is bound for Europe.

The interests of soccer's biggest TV market speak louder than most, and a gap of 16 years between European World Cups would be unthinkable. 2018 is England's to lose.

That would eliminate Russia, Spain/Portugal and Belgium/the Netherlands from the 2022 picture, but Japan would still have to overcome several obstacles before it could rightly claim to be the favorite.

First there is the fact that a Japanese bid is conditional to Tokyo winning the 2016 Olympics.

One of FIFA's new requirements for World Cup host nations is an 80,000-capacity stadium, and with Yokohama International Stadium currently the country's biggest with just under 70,000 seats, it would take a newly built Olympic stadium to fulfill that demand.

The Olympic decision will be made on Oct. 2 this year, but how much impact the world's highest-profile figure — U.S. President Barack Obama — throwing his weight behind Chicago's bid has remains to be seen.

Another impediment could be the fact that Japan cohosted the World Cup with South Korea as recently as 2002.

Half a World Cup it may have been, but it is still fresher in the memory than tournaments staged by other hosts eager for more, most notably the U.S.

But perhaps Japan's biggest challenge comes with the strength of its regional rivals. Australia, long accustomed to organizing top-class sporting events, including a superb Sydney Olympics in 2000, could be just what FIFA is looking for.

China has also thrown its hat into the ring, and although the decrepit state of the game there hardly deserves the prize of the World Cup, FIFA may see the opportunity to kick-start interest and spread the gospel in the world's most populous nation.

But not everything is stacked against Japan's bid.

As the logistic burden of staging the event grows with each tournament, so the number of hosts capable of meeting the task is reduced.

The global recession drives the point home further, and after the hassle of whipping South Africa into shape for 2010 — and the undoubted problems facing Brazil in 2014 — FIFA is likely to choose a country where the necessary infrastructure, organizational knowhow and assurances of safety are already in place.

Viewed in this way, Japan's bid certainly has its merits. But one look back at the selection process that resulted in cohosting in 2002 should be enough of a reminder that, until the final decision is made, anything can happen.



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