The 2002 World Cup football finals in South Korea and Japan are set to begin Friday, with the opening match in Seoul between defending champion France and Senegal.
For the first time ever, the World Cup kicks off in Asia, exactly six years after the International Football Federation, or FIFA, announced that the two Asian neighbors would share the honor of staging the tournament.
Never before have there been co-hosts for a World Cup, and FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper told VOA Sports the organization has been difficult and complex, but he believes the two countries have worked well together to make for a great tournament.
"We've been dealing with two countries, which actually get along with each other far better than most people would have us believe, or would have you believe, or anybody else," he said. "But that doesn't change the fact that they have two different languages, they have two different currencies, they have two different standards of living, two different ways of life. You cannot simply lump them together in the same boat, as people from other continents have tended to do. And that's a difficult starting position. And despite that, they have pooled their resources, and they are about to put on the best World Cup that we could ever hope for."
32 countries will battle for the prestigious World Cup trophy. They are divided into eight groups of four teams for first round play, with four groups playing in Japan and four in South Korea. Each team plays the other in its group once, with the top two teams moving to the second round. From then on, it's single elimination.
The tournament opens here in Seoul with a Group A match between defending champion France, which won on home soil four years ago, and first-time qualifier Senegal.
FIFA's Keith Cooper says this is an intriguing match-up because of where most of the players compete professionally with their club teams. "The extraordinary situation you have got - on the one hand is France with hardly any of its players playing in France, and the other team, Senegal, with nearly all of its players playing in France," he said. "So, you're going to have to ask yourself, you know, 'ha, who is France exactly? Who is who?' So, there are some fascinating aspects as we go into this. Let's hope for a great game, and let's look forward to these matches."
The 64-game tournament runs through the end of next month, with the World Cup championship match to be played in Yokohama, Japan on June 30.