Simon Cotterill examines the legacy of half-filled stadiums from the 2002 World Cup

There was dismay in Japan and South Korea when FIFA announced in 1996 that the 2002 World Cup would be shared between them. The countries’ relationship was frosty at best and the bidding war between them had been fierce, bitter and expensive. Although shocked at FIFA’s unprecedented decision, both were at least relieved that they hadn’t actually lost the vote, and so set about trying to out-do each other by pumping billions into football facilities.

Korea spent around $2.7 billion (£1.6bn) on ten new stadiums, and Japan shelled out a staggering $4.5bn (£2.7bn) on building six and refurbishing four. All the stadiums were completed on time, and during the World Cup audiences were astounded by their cutting-edge technologies and eye-opening architecture. The 14 new venues had capacities ranging from 41,800 at Japan’s Kashima Stadium to 68,000 at Korea’s Daegu Stadium. Since the World Cup, not one of these stadiums has sold out more than a couple of times and they rarely reach half-capacity.

In 1986, FIFA president João Havelange announced the aim of moving World Cups to Asia and Africa, intending to spread football’s global appeal and share World Cup wealth. The move worked – briefly. During the early 21st century football fever did sweep Korea and Japan. But when the final whistle blew in Yokohama, on June 30, 2002, Asia’s football fever cooled almost instantly, leaving teams in Japan’s J-League and Korea’s K-League saddled with dramatically oversized stadiums that have been run at a huge loss ever since.

Despite having 50 million inhabitants, Korea still only has 15 professional football teams. Media attention is drawn to foreign football leagues by exports like Park Ji-Sung, but the K-League struggles to compete with baseball and taekwondo for media coverage and only averages crowds of around 13,000. Stadium upkeep costs and few sponsors mean most K-League teams are suffering huge losses, and in 2006 and 2007 the winners of the semi-professional second tier even declined promotion for fear of financial suicide.

World Cup stadiums are concrete weights around the necks of K‑League clubs: reigning champions and two-time Asian Champions League winners, the Suwon Bluewings – whose usually half-full home, the Suwon World Cup Stadium, holds 43,000 – annually lose up to $2m (£1.2m) despite the league’s largest average crowds. Sang-am Stadium, the site of 2002’s opening ceremony, rarely fills more than a third of its 63,000 seats for FC Seoul’s home games, and Busan L’Park’s 53,000-capacity Asiad Stadium averages crowds of 9,000. Amazingly, the K‑League’s most successful club, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, is also the club with the league’s lowest average attendances (8,000). But they also have one of Korea’s smallest, non-World Cup, stadiums and are able to follow a more traditional business plan. Ilhwa Chunma have won four K‑League titles since the World Cup stadiums were built, while the rest of the K-League struggle to raise funds for wages and youth development.

Half-empty stadiums are common in the J-League too. With a population twice the size of the UK, it might seem logical that Japan should have as many as ten 45,000-plus seater football stadiums, but these venues only sell out once or twice a year, with J-League average crowds of 23,000. Now that the FIFA World Club Championship is moving to the UAE from this December, its recent home, Japan’s largest ground, the Nissan Stadium, seems unlikely to sell-out its 70,000-plus seats regularly again.

The folly of Japan’s World Cup stadium building is most profoundly seen in small-town Rifu. The state-of-the-art 49,000 seater Miyagi Stadium with a unique, majestic crescent-shaped roof impressed all who saw Japan’s World Cup exit to Turkey there. But in the seven years since the tournament it has virtually never been used: its remote location has failed to attract any J-League teams to set up shop, so it just occasionally hosts minor athletic events.

World Cup 2002 significantly relaxed tensions and produced greater cultural contacts between Japan and Korea. But the premature growth spurt that it brought to the K- and J- Leagues has stunted sustainable development ever since. South Africa is building five new 44,000 to 70,000 seat stadiums for 2010 and, despite top-flight attendances often as low as 3,000, is intending to use them afterwards for “key soccer fixtures”. Perhaps the pride of hosting the World Cup will be worth all the future empty seats. But there ought to be a more effective way to accomplish Havelange’s aims.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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