How to Beat Soccer's Shock Troops


By Brian Bremner The 2002 World Cup, the biggest sports extravaganza on the planet, kicks off on May 31. It has cast the global spotlight on co-hosts Japan and South Korea. This is the first time the event has been held in Asia, and the first time there have been co-hosts. So, naturally, the international press is foraging for story lines that go beyond the match play and make some broader cultural points about the two countries. Hey, that's what we do.

Sometimes, such feature stories, drawn with broad-brushed, stereotypical strokes, can go too far. Consider the coverage of that old scourge of global football -- hooliganism. Now, couple that with a familiar cultural stereotype, like the penchant of the Japanese and the South Koreans for order and organization.

As I read the international press coverage here in Tokyo, not a day goes by that I don't run across some light-hearted article about how South Korea and Japan are freaking out about the prospect of besotted soccer hooligans descending on their cities, bars, and hotels. The subtext: Hey, Asia, lighten up. Sure, take some precautions. But let the lads be lads.

NO LAUGHING MATTER. This story line has the nice, simplistic East-meets-West kind of feel that any cable television producer would love. All CNN and the BBC have to do is scan the archives for images of hooligan brawls, interview a concerned shopkeeper or two, and, voilà, you have a nice feature about those tightly wound Asians who don't know how to throw a party.

What bothers me about all this is the way they imply that the co-hosts, particularly the Japanese, are somehow going too far as they ramp up security to prevent rowdy British or Argentinean fans from trying to bust up the place in a fit of raw sports nationalism.

Maybe we can all learn something here. Japan and South Korea should be lauded, not laughed at, for playing tough with these thugs. They don't call them soccer hooligans for nothing. The more security, the better, I say.

FOOTLOOSE ARMIES. Not that anyone needs reminding, but we now live in a world of global terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of fans from Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East (never mind the racial profiling) are going to be roaming around both countries for the next four weeks.

The World Cup is an obvious and choice terrorist target. When I saw riot police with automatic machine guns at Korea's Incheon Airport this week, I didn't think, "Well, those South Koreans are going overboard again, aren't they?" After September 11, I felt somewhat assured.

The Japanese riot police staged fake riots this week to test out their skills, amid warnings from police officials that unruly behavior and destruction of property will be cause for immediate deportation -- and jail time in Japan for extreme behavior. Also, Japanese immigration officials the other day used the hooligan blacklist -- compiled by several nations as a way of keeping track of rowdies trying to get to soccer matches in Europe -- to turn away two Brits, who had flown in from Turkey.

Further, the Japanese plan to place spotters in the stands as kind of an early-warning system. And opposing fans will be seated in different parts of the stadiums, to avoid brawls.

A TOAST TO SAFETY. A recent dispatch from the Associated Press notes: "Many worry that Japan's comprehensive approach to dealing with hooligans will take away from the festive atmosphere of the World Cup." That is utter nonsense. South Korean and Japanese soccer fans aren't killjoys.

I was recently in Seoul, and the town rocked in anticipation of the games. When I met President Kim Dae Jung at the Blue House for an interview on May 27, one of the first things we talked about was the Korean national team's surprisingly close match with the reigning World Cup champions, the French. (They lost 3-2, but the previous time the Koreans faced off against the French, they were creamed, 5-0.)

The fact is, the South Koreans and the Japanese like to have a good time. Trust me on this one. The average South Korean drinker can more than hold his own against a Brit or American. In Japan, they sell beer in vending machines on street corners, for Pete's sake. Funny thing about these North Asians: They don't like to form mobs, turn over cars, and shatter storefront windows. Go figure.

HIGH STAKES. The smirking commentators who think these countries are going too far to ensure the safety of spectators at the World Cup games won't be the ones held accountable if there is a violent riot in downtown Kobe, or a terrorist attack in Busan. Ponder this: When you think about the Olympics and terrorism, don't you immediately link them with Munich and Atlanta?

Japan and South Korea have much at stake here. And if I had to worry about hooligans and terrorists messing up my party, I'd put spotters in the soccer stadiums, too. Wouldn't you? Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online


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