Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - For millions of eager soccer fans, it's known as "the greatest show on earth," but for co-hosts Japan and South Korea, the 2002 World Cup starting in just 10 days' time has presented organizers with a series of headaches.
Threats of terrorism, labor unrest and soccer hooliganism top the list of concerns, along with the possibility of potentially embarrassing protests aimed at highlighting causes under the glare of international media coverage. Adding to the hosts' woes is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Korea and disappointing ticket sales.
From the kickoff on May 31 until the final game on June 30, 32 of the world's best national soccer teams (the United States is among them, having qualified for the fourth consecutive time) will play 64 games at venues in the two countries, in a competition watched by more television viewers worldwide than the Olympic Games.
The event is held every four years, but this is the first time it is taking place in Asia, and it is the first time two countries have co-hosted it. Japan and South Korea share many of the challenges, but the Koreans have a couple of additional concerns as well.
Campaigners for North Korean refugees, animal welfare and labor issues have seen the occasion as an opportunity to gain the world's attention.
Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who campaigns for North Korean asylum seekers, has announced his intention to charter a boat to bring "thousands" of North Koreans to South Korea during the World Cup.
"North Korea is a sinking ship and we will take care of the boat people who are desperate to get away," he told a press conference in Seoul.
In recent months, a growing number of North Koreans desperate to escape their poverty-stricken, communist homeland have sought refuge in western embassies in China, and from there were able to resettle in South Korea.
Although supportive of their plight, the Seoul government is sensitive to the impact the refugee issue could have on its attempts to improve relations with the North. Other groups supporting North Korean refugees have agreed to put any plans on hold during the World Cup.
Animal welfare campaigners protesting the eating of dogs and cats by some Koreans earlier sought to pressure World Cup sponsors -- including Coca Cola and McDonalds -- to withdraw their support. The campaign changed direction after the president of world soccer's governing body, FIFA, threw his support behind the drive to end dog-eating, a stance which in turn was criticized by many Koreans.
Protestors will continue to target Korean government officials, however, and Seoul is not certain what to expect during the big event.
And disregarding government appeals for a strike-free World Cup, tens of thousands of Korean workers have vowed to go on strike in the coming days for higher wages, improved working conditions and to protest an earlier crackdown on unionists for illegal striking.
Hijackers and hooligans
Security is also a major concern for the host nations.
Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily said Monday police and intelligence officials had a watchlist of 420 terrorists from al Qaeda and other groups. Police are reportedly hunting for at least one suspected al Qaeda member who entered the country in April.
A number of warnings have been received. A senior government official was quoted as saying a man claiming to be a Lebanese official said terrorists from the Lebanon-based group, Hizballah, planned to attack "U.S.-related facilities" in Korea at the end of May.
Precautions at airports have been tightened, and each World Cup game venue will be protected by ground-to-air missile batteries, while F16s will fly overhead during games. With the memories of Sept. 11 still fresh, no-fly zones will be enforced for all other aircraft.
Security concerns of a different type arise from the mostly European phenomenon known as "football hooliganism" -- violence orchestrated by thugs who exploit heightened emotions among traveling groups of fans.
FIFA security head Walter Gagg said in Tokyo he was confident foreign governments would prevent known offenders from traveling to the event.
England fans have traditionally provided the biggest threat, but the UK government has banned more than 1,000 individuals from attending the World Cup, ordering them to surrender their passports until the tournament is over.
The Foreign Office has warned fans that anyone breaking the law could be detained for up to 27 days while under investigation, and could then face fines, imprisonment or deportation.
In one Japanese city, entrepreneurs are selling T-shirts bearing the slogan "I am not a hooligan" in English and Japanese, for any fans worried about being misjudged by police in a country which has never before had to deal with the problem.
The Korea Times reports that sales of tickets have not met expectations.
Tickets reserved for domestic sale have been selling briskly, but internationally they haven't gone as well. As of May 19, only 326,000 of a total of 706,000 tickets were sold overseas, and predictions of foreign visitor numbers were being scaled back from about 316,000 to possibly as low as 126,000.
Particularly surprising has been the fact that only a quarter of the predicted number of Chinese fans have bought tickets, according to travel agents in that country. China qualified for the 2002 World Cup for the first time after 44 years of failed attempts, and interest is thought to be high.
Last month, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung expressed concern that the crash of an Air China jet near a Korean city could affect World Cup visitor numbers.
Organizers said this week they were optimistic matters would improve once national teams began arriving and the excitement level grew.
As if the Koreans don't have enough to worry about already, foot-and-mouth disease broke out early this month in a localized area about 100 kilometers south of Seoul. The highly contagious, deadly-to-animals disease is not harmful to humans, but they can easily spread it, causing havoc to the livestock sector and meat supplies.
The outbreak is far from World Cup venues, but up to 100,000 animals have already been killed in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading.
The last World Cup, held in France, was won by the host nation. Favorites to win this time, according to British bookmaker William Hill, are France, Argentina, Italy and Brazil -- in that order.
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