Eiji Kawashima can close his eyes and immediately be transported back to his first World Cup experience.
The goalkeeper, aged 19, sat somewhere above the game at the Saitama Stadium, while Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo worked wonders on the ball, while Ronaldo weaved in and out of two Turkish defenders and fired a deft but accurate shot with the outside of his right foot. For the only goal in the 2002 World Cup semi-final.
Around Kawashima, fans in yellow jerseys danced with excitement, while fans in red jerseys hung their heads.
For Kawashima, a goalkeeper for the Japanese national team, one aspect of the World Cup experience was curiosity. In 2002, he could envision a deeper, new future in international football that he wanted to be a part of.
“It was a great experience for us to feel the World Cup,” said Kawashima, reflecting not only on his experience as a young Japanese player when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, but also as a de facto announcer. A generation of Japanese players.
Prior to that, the J1 league was just over 10 years old, and without exposure to the world’s top international players, the majority of Japan’s national team members believed that high-level international football was out of reach for their young players. Country.
The same can practically be said for fellow co-host South Korea. They had qualified for the previous four World Cups before co-hosting, but were unimpressive, never managing a win.
In 2002, they stumbled to the semi-finals and in the four subsequent World Cups they have gone without a win just once.
This year Japan and South Korea were knocked out of the group stage for the second time in the same World Cup tournament. Japan lost to Croatia on penalties and South Korea lost 4-1 to tournament heavyweights Brazil, but both emerged from tricky groups.
Two decades after Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup, one wonders: What is the legacy of the first World Cup hosted outside of Europe and the Americas?
Going forward, what can United’s 2026 bid, especially an emerging soccer nation like Canada, learn from that legacy?
Before 2002, getting the World Cup outside the Americas and Europe was a priority for FIFA. That’s according to Patrick Nally, considered one of the most important figures in the history of sports marketing and a long-time partner with FIFA who worked with them. To understand the feasibility of Japan and South Korea co-hosting the 2002 World Cup. Nally later joined the organizing committee of Japan’s failed bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Nally said that while FIFA considers Japan an important commercial partner, the country is within its development reach (FIFA wanted to accelerate growth in Africa and Asia). While Japan emerged with a strong bid to host in 2002, South Korea’s bid piqued the interest of some within FIFA. After continued behind-the-scenes work to bring the two bids together, the combined bid was unanimously voted through.
By the time the 2002 World Cup began, a groundswell of domestic support had emerged.
“Koreans are very proud to co-host the World Cup,” said Hyunho Lee, a South Korean sports journalist. “Many would say the World Cup was the most unifying the country has ever been. Korea is very economically and politically divided and very dynamic. But the 2002 World Cup brought all the people together. Even those who didn’t like football loved football at that time.”
Lee claims that the World Cup catapulted many South Korean athletes into the mainstream consciousness as corporations used players for advertising in unprecedented ways, placing them alongside the country’s film and pop stars in terms of local importance.
Things were not so different in Japan.
Kumi Kinohara, a Japanese sports journalist, said what she remembers from the 2002 World Cup are “the changes (in Japan)”.
Japan’s J-League started in 1992, but Kinohara said soccer has a largely regional audience.
“Japan wasn’t really known as a soccer country,” Kinohara said. “But by co-hosting the event, (interest in football) spread to every corner of the country. People recognize football, and they find it to be a very interesting event and a fun game. That’s why people loved it.”
Crucially, access to world-class international football has sparked interest in a younger generation of players previously only exposed to the J-League and K-League, popular only at the provincial level.
At that time, Kawashima, who was competing with Omiya Ardija in the J2 tournament, the second tier of Japanese football, was among those young players.
“We can see a little further ahead,” Kawashima said.
That exposure to international soccer played into the veteran Japanese and South Korean teams at this year’s World Cup.
Lee introduces a term widely recognized throughout South Korea – “2002 kids”. Co-hosting the World Cup allowed players to visualize global success in a way they never had before.
“In 2002 when the kids were little, they all started watching the World Cup,” Lee said. “We started dreaming that one day we could play in the World Cup.”
Lee is asked which of the South Korean players on this current team could be considered “2002 kids.” He frowns, then points to a stage where, minutes later, 30-year-old Korean lefty Kim Jin-soo will speak at a press conference for the Korean team. Kim turned 10 at the 2002 World Cup, and with an average median age of 27.5, this current South Korean team is the seventh oldest at the World Cup.
Led by 30-year-old talisman Son Heung-min, all but five of the team’s players could be trusted to be old enough to have watched the 2002 World Cup in Korea and be inspired by seeing international football up close. .
While we can’t exactly call this Korean team part of a golden generation, we can pretty much say the kids of 2002. They witnessed one of the biggest surprises in World Cup history.
“We want to relive that moment for ourselves,” Kim Jin-soo told the team in the moment when asked what the legacy of co-hosting the World Cup would be.
After that amazing run, South Korea has continued to improve in the World Cup. It also affected the Japanese side.
Japanese players believe the legacy of hosting the World Cup remains the increased competitiveness of the AFC.
“It was a big event for South Korea. They were the strongest team in that tournament. They pulled to the Asian level and we tried to go up with them. Now, everyone pulls each other up,” said Japanese goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt, who was 10 years old when Japan co-hosted the World Cup.
In 2002, Japanese kids saw with their own eyes that Japan and South Korea could compete with the best players in the world when both teams made it past the group stage. 20 years ago Japan finished top of their group ahead of Belgium, Russia and Tunisia.
Another aspect of the legacy of World Cup co-hosting is the confidence the Japanese players have in their own footballing abilities, which was still evident at this World Cup as they came back from deficits to topple Germany and Spain.
“We felt confident because Japan and South Korea went to the knockout stage (in 2002), so we felt confident about our country’s football. It’s a good thing to have,” Schmidt said.
It’s another aspect of the legacy of co-hosting the 2002 World Cup that Schmidt wants to explain.
“It was a big event for South Korea,” he said, shaking his head as if anyone near him understood what he was saying.
Before 2002, only two Asian teams had made it out of the first round of the World Cup: Saudi Arabia reached the first knockout round in 1994, while North Korea reached the quarter-finals in the 16-team 1966 World Cup.
Backed by a fast-paced fan base, South Korea’s run in 2002 raised eyebrows around the world. But, having felt a more relevant impact on their own continent, other Asian national teams recognized that not only what an Asian team could do, but also that they had to invest even more in the development of their own players to contend with the fast-growing Asian teams. .
“In that tournament, South Korea was the strongest team,” Schmidt said. “They pulled up the level of Asian football and we tried to go up with them. Now, everyone is pulling each other up.
“In the past it looked easy to qualify for Asia. But not now,” he continued. “With three teams entering the knockout stage, everyone will know how difficult it is for Asian teams to qualify. Maybe many people will respect Asian people.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said ahead of their round of 16 match that for Japan to progress in the tournament in the future, the Japan Football Association is “trying to create the right conditions to produce good young players”. That includes sending Japanese coaches abroad to learn from other clubs and countries. That way, Japan can raise standards in Asia as well as domestically.
“Unless we can win the World Cup ourselves, we cannot lead other countries,” Moriasu said.
Until 2002, Japan and South Korea stood on the world stage. The fact that hosting the 2002 World Cup changed the soccer culture and on-field results in Japan and South Korea should be refreshing to 2026 co-hosts Canada.
Canada qualified for their first World Cup in 36 years and arrived in Qatar with promise, but their lack of experience was evident in all three of their defeats. Could the 2026 tournament be when the impact of co-hosting becomes clear?
We know that many decision-makers in Canadian soccer cite the improvements South Korea and Japan have made on the global stage after establishing their own domestic leagues as a reason for the creation of the Canadian Premier League, which began in 2019.
We know that soccer became popular in Japan and South Korea after 2002. It’s not unreasonable to believe the same effect could happen in Canada, where soccer seems ripe to challenge hockey on the domestic sports throne.
It’s early days, but if Japan and South Korea have proven anything, it’s that the positive impact of World Cup co-hosting can finally be felt.
“By them hosting the World Cup, it’s cemented the foundation and given them the proper growth and development of the game,” Nally said, “and that’s what it was always meant to be.”
(Top photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)