Soccer minnows are devouring the favored fish

South Korea upset No. 5 ranked Italy in the World Cup yesterday. Why? The home-field factor.

Soccer's mighty are falling, one after another. France. Portugal. Argentina. And now Italy.

Korea's stunning victory yesterday over No. 5 seeded Italy is yet another sign that nothing can be taken for granted in the 2002 World Cup finals.

In terms of upsetting the prognosticators, the official rankings, and the number of goals scored, this is proving to be a finals like no other – with the greatest surprises of all coming from the two hosts who have shown just how big an advantage it is to play at home.

The international soccer federation (FIFA) rankings, which are supposed to show the relative strengths of national teams, have been turned on their heads. The reigning champion, France, was the first to fall. Then, No. 2 Argentina. Both went in the first round.

Meanwhile, soccer minnows, South Korea (ranked No. 40) and Japan (ranked No. 32) won their respective groups and knocked out powerhouse Portugal (No. 4) and Russia in the process – with a little help, of course, from the United States and Belgium.

Yesterday, Japan finally succumbed to Turkey's national team, 1-O.

But to understand just how impressive it is for both host teams to get this far, one must look at their records.

Japan has previously qualified for only one World Cup finals – France in 1998, which the team quickly left after three straight defeats in which it could only manage one goal.

South Korea has a longer history, but never in its four previous World Cup final appearances has it won a game, let alone progressed beyond the initial stages. This time, though, both teams bagged an impressive number of goals, and won plaudits for their style and commitment.

So what has happened? In part, it is because the two nations have invested heavily in the sport. In part, it is because their rivalry with one another has driven them to previously undreamed of levels of play. And some of the European teams have complained of playing the tournament in the humidity of East Asia's rainy season.

But history shows that more than anything, it is because they are playing on home turf.

"I always felt that this would be a tournament of surprises because it is taking place for the first time in Asia," says Michel Platini, FIFA vice-president. "Every World Cup but one until now has been won by a team from the same continent as the host. In Asia, that may not be the case, but anything can happen."

Philippe Troussier, the French coach of the Japanese national team, agrees. "Playing at home is a huge advantage. Just look at the record. Every host nation has progressed beyond the first round [except the US in 1994], and the whole tournament was won by the home team in England in 1966, in Germany in 1974, in Argentina in 1978 and in France in '98. With the public behind you, it is like having 12 players."

For Japan's games, the stadiums have been bathed in blue, and the deafening chants of "Nippon, You Can Nippon." Even England has derived a kind of home-field advantage. Its players are so popular that almost everyone in the mostly Japanese crowds arrives wearing white shirts with David Beckham or Michael Owen printed on the back. England's games here have been like home matches.

But arguably, the influence of the crowds in South Korea has been even greater. Weaker in the run-up to the tournament and in a tougher group, the team has reached unimaginable heights of play. Credit their "Red Devil" supporters. Their uniformity of dress is such that the stands look as if they have been dipped in red ink.

It would be a soccer tsunami if Korea made it to the finals. But the beauty of this World Cup is that anything seems possible.

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