The signs are good for Japan's chances at the World Cup, but less so for anyone who might want to go and watch any of the matches. Justin McCurry reports on the co-hosts' preparations
For all their supposed organisational acumen, Japan’s football authorities seem to stumble whenever tickets enter the equation. Three years ago, thousands of Japanese fans who had booked on package tours to France 98 turned up at Tokyo’s Narita airport to find their tickets had failed to materialise. Just last month, refunds were being offered to 62,000 people who had bought tickets for a combined Korea-Japan v World All-Stars match on January 3 after stars such as Zinedine Zidane and Paolo Maldini withdrew because of changes to the Serie A schedule.
As arrangements are finalised for next year’s World Cup, the latest ticket problem is not one of supply and demand (not yet, anyway) or plain bad luck, but of shoddy planning and, dare it be said, greed. Late last year, FIFA locked horns with the Japanese government over the planned taxation of ticket revenues. The Japanese media also reported allegations that JAWOC, Japan’s World Cup organisers, were allowing local travel agents to arrange hotel bookings during the tournament, rather than the FIFA-sanctioned agent Byrom Consultants.
At one point, FIFA officials were said to have threatened to deprive Japan of its fixtures and hand them all to South, and even North, Korea. Whatever threats were issued, they worked. The contretemps was cleared up during Sepp Blatter’s visit to Japan in November.
The first batch of about 340,000 tickets bound for the domestic market will go on sale from February 15, four months later than scheduled. Despite official claims that the delay was “to further hone the sales and distribution structures of the most complex ticket sales in history”, JAWOC’s failure to spot revenue-hungry tax authorities on the horizon is troubling given the number of central government bureaucrats warming its executive seats. The hitch has already cost JAWOC an estimated $2.3 million and has added to delays in arranging accommodation, visas, transport, translation services, security and policing.
While these will no doubt be resolved in time, the other ticket problem looks less likely to result in a happy ending. Even by Japanese standards, the prices are exorbitant. It may be cheaper now to fly to east Asia than it once was, but many fans hoping to follow their team to South Korea or Japan or both may find themselves priced out of a stadium seat and pushed into an armchair in front of the TV. The cheapest tickets for the group stages will cost about £40, rising to £100 for the best ones. The cheapest seat for the final at the International Stadium in Yokohama on June 30 will be £200; the most expensive, £500. The average price of a ticket will be just under £97, compared with £37 at France 98.
Livid supporters groups say the additional expense will put the tournament beyond the reach of ordinary fans. FIFA, not unreasonably, has pointed to the huge cost of putting on a World Cup in two of the world’s most expensive countries. True, up to a point, but the best seats for a J-League match at the International Stadium cost about £30. Is a group opener between, say, Saudi Arabia and the US really worth more than three times that amount?
Ticket prices aside, Japanese organisers have been presented with a further headache. As reported recently in the Independent, the 70,000-seat stadium in Yokohama where the final will be played stands just 500 yards from a disused industrial waste site that contains high levels of dioxins and PCBs. Local residents are campaigning to have the toxic soil removed before it is churned up to make way for a road leading to the stadium. Although visitors will not be at immediate risk, the Independent article rightly pointed out that the discovery is an embarrassment to Japanese authorities less than 18 months before kick-off. No decision has yet been made on the soil’s future.
In June, World Cup organisers in both countries will be given a trial run when Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, France and Mexico arrive for the Confederations Cup. Ah, yes, the football: Japan, at least, can expect to do more than just make up the numbers. Philippe Troussier’s players have come a long way in the past 12 months. After a barren 1999, during which they failed to win a single game, speculation mounted that the Frenchman was on his way out. Arsène Wenger, admired by the Japan Football Association since his days as coach at Nagoya Grampus Eight, was among those mooted as a replacement.
The enigmatic Troussier appealed to an impatient JFA and salivating sports tabloids to give his players more time to appreciate his homespun “football philosophy”. Japan performed well enough at the Kirin Cup last summer to earn Troussier a new contract, and by October talk of Team Wenger had been forgotten – for the time being – as Japan’s Asian Cup victory in Lebanon made them the first east Asian team to lift the trophy in the Middle East.
By contrast, a 1-0 win over Japan in a friendly in the summer turned out to be the only bright spot in an otherwise forgettable year for South Korea. Once the undisputed kings of Asian football, their disappointment at finishing only third in Lebanon was compounded by the style and ease with which the Japanese beat fellow contenders Iraq and Saudi Arabia (twice) en route to lifting the trophy.
Korea’s hopes for a revival now rest with a new coach, the Dutchman Guus Hiddink. In Hiddink’s first game in charge in Tokyo last month, Japan and Korea took the spirit of co-operation to extremes with a 1-1 draw in Yokohama.
If a country’s international performances are a reflection of the health of its domestic league, then the J-League is a good augury. Gone is the belief that only foreign players can provide the level of skill needed to make the league the genuine article. The financial crisis that threatened to suck the life out of Japanese professional football two years ago has resulted in a purge of highly paid players and the emergence of homegrown youngsters who are attracting attention beyond Japan’s shores.
Several have spent time in Spain, including striker Akinori Nishizawa, now on loan at Espanyol, and in Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono, Japan have two potentially world-class midfielders. Hiroshi Nanami returned to Jubilo Iwata from a disastrous year with Venezia and promptly rediscovered the form that took him to Italy in the first place.
West Ham fans may soon get the chance to see one of Japan’s best young players for themselves if Gamba Osaka central defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto concludes a £1.5 million deal that would make him the Premiership’s first Japanese import. And Harry Redknapp needn’t lose sleep over how to deal with Miyamoto’s tricky first name. One London tabloid has already come up with an alternative: Billy – as in Billy Bonsai.
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month