Oliver Butler explains how South Korea pulled off a coup in co-hosting the 2002 World Cup finals

The decision in June 1996 to share the hosting of the 2002 World Cup between Japan and South Korea showed what could be achieved by a bidding committee’s political know-how and expertise in manipulating the process, regardless of the merits of the bid itself. Despite starting four years later, South Korea succeeded in matching the claims of a bid that was palpably superior to its own and had received support from the highest levels of FIFA.

The Japanese bid, launched in 1989, was the over­whelming favourite from the start, for a number of reasons. Its bidding committee members were all former players who had developed close relationships with other countries. Its business links were impeccable: three of the eight official sponsors of the World Cup were Japanese companies, while the Japanese advertising giant Dentsu held 49 per cent of the shares in International Sport and Leisure, FIFA’s marketing company. On the playing side, the formation of the J-League in 1993 was seen as a model for future professional leagues in Asia, and Japan’s hosting of the Under-17 World Championships in the same year  was proof of its ability to stage international tournaments. When FIFA president João Havelange said he wanted to see the 2002 World Cup in Asia, Japan saw it as a pointed reference to itself.

All Japan lacked was a team worthy of qualification for the World Cup. Their failure to qualify for the 1994 finals thanks to a last-minute goal in their final match against Iraq not only dented Japan’s own credibility but also handed South Korea qualification for the third con­secutive tournament and kick-started their own bid.

The Korean Football Association chairman, Chung Mong Joon, was a politician and heir to the Hyundai conglomerate. He soon saw that Korea lagged well behind the Japanese bid and that his only chance of success was to exploit the politics of world football. Chung correctly saw the 1993 election for the Asian Football Confederation’s position on the FIFA executive committee as the critical moment, since it was FIFA’s Exco that would vote on the bids. He threw himself, his Hyundai staff and Korea’s diplomatic corps into the election with a vigour that blew away the well-established but staid Japanese candidate, and forced a one-vote victory in a controversial recount  over the Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad. Not only did the Korean bid now have one guaranteed vote, but Chung was also in a position to canvass other Exco members.

Japan’s bidding committee remained confident that the support of the all-powerful Havelange would still prove to be their trump card. But they had reckoned without UEFA president Lennart Johansson’s chall­enge to Havelange in 1994, which Chung was able to exploit and they were powerless to avoid. UEFA had long opposed Havelange’s rule and the lack of distribution of power and money within FIFA, but its opposition had hitherto been isolated. With dissent also stirring in Africa, Chung saw his opportunity and soon became the leading critic of the workings of FIFA. In return, he won support from UEFA for the Korean bid.

UEFA gave practical assistance to the Koreans’ financial planning. But their crucial influence was on FIFA’s committee which inspected the bidding nat­ions’ facilities, whose report was seen as the most significant factor in Exco’s votes. The committee was headed by the secretary-general of the German FA, Horst Schmidt. He was closely linked to UEFA’s general secretary, Gerhard Aigner, and the German company TEAM, UEFA’s marketing consultants, who were seeking to break the ISL stranglehold on  the rights to FIFA tournaments. After conducting the inspections, Schmidt stated that there was no real difference between the two bids, much to the shock of Japan. Its advantages over Korea in infrastructure, such as high-speed train lines, larger hotel capacity and more advanced technology, were completely ignored.

Chung cleverly engineered the situation to make defeat for Korea unpalatable to those who were to make the decision. As Korea in­creased the intensity of its bidd­ing, so Japan was forced to reciprocate. Exco members found the gifts sent to them were upgraded from bottles of whisky to computers; they were called two or three times a week; on plane trips they found themselves sat next to Korean or Japanese campaign representatives.

Chung also deliberately raised tension among Koreans towards the country’s former colonial master Japan, which ruled the peninsula between 1910 and 1945. “The Japanese occupation... was the most barbarous in the history of humanity,” he said. “Japan should acknowledge that image and stop trying to spoil our bid.” Partly as a result of the bidding, relations between the two countries deteriorated to the point that the Japanese embassy in Seoul warned its nationals to take precautions in case of a Japanese victory, while nervous Japanese politicians began to suggest co-hosting as a way out of the impasse.

The climate was therefore ripe for Johansson to take the lead in the call for co-hosting. “Gradually we rea­lised that this is more than a bid for the World Cup. This is a fight between two countries,” he argued.  This compromise was in fact the ideal solution for UEFA. It would deal a serious blow to Havelange, while not completely alienating the Japanese – their money was still valuable for the FIFA confederations. UEFA also hoped it might pave the way for future joint bids from smaller European nations, such as the Scandinavian countries. Pressured from all sides, Havelange and Japan were grudgingly obliged to accept.

Co-hosting was ideal for South Korea too – indeed some claimed that had been their aim all along, since the investment required to stage the tournament alone would have been excessive. Thanks to Chung’s political nous, the Korean bluff succeeded.

Strangely, despite the ferocity of competition dur­ing the bidding, co-hosting has since helped to herald a new era in relations between the two countries. Their economic difficulties have meant that any plans to outdo each other in the grandeur of their ideas have been sacrificed in favour of closer co-operation, although there are still fears that the Koreans are lagging behind in their infrastructure projects.

The provision by Japan of financial aid for the construction of Korean sites was largely welcomed in Seoul, despite the blow it dealt to national pride. World Cup protocol requires the attendance of the host’s head of state at the opening ceremony, a prospect which has forced the Koreans to invite the Japanese emperor for an official visit before 2002 – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. If such strange outcomes are any guide, there are still plenty of surprises on the way to 2006.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month

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