PORTLAND, OREGON, December 15, 2005 
(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Will an Asian team surprise in the 32-nation 18th World Cup in Germany next year?

South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan were the four Asian entries in the previous soccer extravaganza where matches were held in several cities in South Korea and Japan.

In a monumental feat, South Korea barged into the semifinals and lost a 1-0 decision to Germany in Seoul. Brazil blanked Turkey, 1-0, in the other semifinal pairing in Saitama. Brazil went on to whip Germany, 2-0, in the finals in Yokohama while Turkey nipped South Korea, 3-2, in the playoff for third place in Daegu.

The Koreans, coached by Holland’s Guus Hiddink, posted an overall record of 4-2-1 in Asia’s best finish ever. They beat Poland, 2-0, tied the US, 1-1, trimmed Portugal, 1-0, upset Italy, 2-1 in overtime, edged Spain, 5-3 in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals and bowed to Germany and Turkey.

In next year’s World Cup, South Korea will be bracketed with France, Switzerland and Togo in Group G. The other Asian qualifiers are Iran (with Angola, Mexico and Portugal in Group D), Japan (with Australia, Brazil and Croatia in Group F) and Saudi Arabia (with Spain, Tunisia and Ukraine).

Believe it or not, the Koreans lost twice to Saudi Arabia in the World Cup qualifiers this year, prompting Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere’s exit. New coach Dick Advocaat, also of Holland, now has the unenviable job of at least duplicating Hiddink’s feat in 2002.

Leading the Korean charge is Park Ji Sung of Manchester United and Ahn Jung Hwan who booted in the marginal goal to beat Italy in the last World Cup. Two teams from each group will advance to the knockout matches in the second round. France is expected to top Group G with South Korea and Switzerland tipped to dispute second spot. Togo won’t figure in the run-up.

France crushed South Korea, 5-0, in the 2001 Confederations Cup and repeated with a 3-2 thriller in a friendly a few days before the start of the 2002 World Cup. That close exhibition win saw Zinedine Zidane go down with a damaged thigh muscle and he was sidelined in France’s first two World Cup matches which were a 1-0 loss to Senegal and a scoreless draw with Uruguay. France was unceremoniously eliminated in the first round.

France is determined to make up for its horrible showing in 2002 and with Zidane back in the lineup, coach Raymond Domenech is confident it will. Making life difficult for South Korea will be Swiss stars Alexander Frei and Johann Vogel, both French league veterans. Frei, in fact, was the leading scorer in France last season.

The World Cup draw was staged in Leipzig and the proceedings were beamed live all over the world on satellite TV last Friday. Soccer legends Pele and Johann Cruyff were among the luminaries who participated in the draw.

At the Adidas US headquarters here, the live feed was shown on a giant screen in a basketball gym.

The visiting Adidas Asian Streetball champions from San Beda College were special guests during the late morning screening. The gym was packed with Adidas employees and invited guests, including reporters.

The World Cup was described as the sporting event that dwarfs the Super Bowl and even the Olympics by an Adidas official who acted as the master of ceremonies for the program in the gym. Some 320 million fans are estimated to watch the matches on TV. Before the draw was shown on the huge monitor, the official Adidas match ball — called Team Geist or Team Spirit — was unveiled to rousing applause.

In 2002, about six million World Cup match balls were sold around the world. Today, orders have already been made for 10 million of next year’s World Cup balls.

Team Geist is now in the market. The ball features no stitches and 14 panels for more efficient control (the previous ball had 32 panels).

The matches will be held in 12 venues all over Germany, including Stuttgart, Leipzig, Hamburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin and Frankfurt.

The US is bracketed in Group E with Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. In the 1998 World Cup, the Americans finished dead last. But in 2002, the US stormed into the quarterfinals where the Americans were ousted by Germany, 1-0. American star DeMarcus Beasley, 23, is back to lead the Stars and Stripes and will no doubt lean on his experience from playing in the Dutch league. The US coach is Bruce Arena.

Solar Sports will air the World Cup matches on an exclusive basis starting in June.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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