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Japan Qualifies for 2006 FIFA World Cup (July 20, 2005)

Japan's players celebrate their decisive second goal in Bangkok. (Jiji)
Japan has become the first team in the world to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which will be held next June and July in Germany. It will be Japan's third ever and third straight World Cup appearance, following on from the 1998 tournament in France and the 2002 tournament, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea. Many Japanese were glued to their TVs on June 8 for the decisive qualifying game, and there was widespread joy at the team's achievement. As fans look forward to watching the team, coached by former Brazil legend Zico, in Germany next year, some companies are already looking to cash in on World Cup fever.

An Empty Stadium
Japan played North Korea in the decisive game in the final round of Asian World Cup qualifying on June 8 in Bangkok, Thailand. The match was originally scheduled to take place in Pyongyang as a home game for North Korea, but FIFA decided that it should be played at a neutral venue as a penalty for crowd trouble that occurred at a match in North Korea in March. FIFA also decreed that the match should be played without spectators.

In the deserted stadium - the first time the players had experienced playing in such a strange atmosphere - Japan defeated North Korea 2-0 to book a place in the 2006 World Cup finals. As Japan qualified automatically as co-host in 2002, this is the first time in eight years that the team has got through the Asian preliminary competition. Although fans were not allowed into the stadium, some Japanese supporters did travel to Bangkok and gathered to watch the game on TV in hotels in the city. Many of those who stayed in Japan, meanwhile, watched the match on big screens set up in stadiums in Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities. At times the game attracted amazing TV ratings of 50% or more, showing the nationwide excitement about the team's achievement.

A Far from Smooth Journey
Despite being the first team in the world to book its ticket to Germany, Japan actually made quite hard work of the qualifying competition. Some supporters even held a demonstration in February 2004 demanding Zico's resignation. Yet the Japan Football Association kept faith with the Brazilian, and the team seemed to improve with every match on the way to achieving its goal. Zico praised his players, saying, "We overcame a lot of difficulties as a team. I always believed this day would come. This is a team achievement. We showed how strong we are." JFA President Kawabuchi Saburo also expressed his satisfaction, saying, "Eight years ago [when Japan qualified for France '98], I was overjoyed. Today I'm glad we have qualified. It's a big relief."

Released from the pressure of the World Cup qualifying campaign, after the North Korea match the Japanese team traveled to Germany to appear in the FIFA Confederations' Cup as Asian champions. The players gave a good account of themselves, beating European champions Greece and managing an epic 2-2 draw with World Cup holders Brazil. Their performance further increased the sense of anticipation surrounding the World Cup next year.

Japan's successful qualification has already sparked talk of a World Cup-related economic bonanza. One think tank estimates the domestic economic benefits of the event at ¥260 billion ($2.36 billion at ¥110 to the dollar). Products and services likely to benefit from the World Cup include wide-screen TVs and World Cup tours to Germany. Which teams Japan will play and where will not be known until December 9, when the World Cup draw takes place, but travel agents report that supporters have already been making inquiries about tours that include tickets to World Cup matches.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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