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Japan, Belgium Generate Excitement

Group H: Teams in maligned quartet play to 2-2 tie. Controversy reigns after Japan goal in extra time is disallowed.


FUKUI, Japan — World Cup co-host Japan and Belgium opened play in the tournament's much-maligned Group H, which doesn't have much going for it aside from the possibility that somebody's bound to win it. Unless they all tie.

In front of a mostly blue-clad, mostly crazed crowd of 55,256 in Saitama, Japan, which has never won a World Cup match, and Belgium, which tied all of its World Cup matches in 1998, did the predictable Tuesday, playing to a 2-2 draw.

But at least they did it in unpredictable style. After 55 scoreless minutes, Japan and Belgium finished with a flurry--Belgium taking the lead on a sensational bicycle kick by captain Marc Wilmots, Japan countering with two quick goals of its own, followed by a 75th-minute equalizer by Belgium and a potential game-winner by Japan controversially waved off in extra time.

Junichi Inamoto, who had scored Japan's second goal in the 67th minute, appeared to beat the Belgium defense for a late winner, only to have the goal disallowed by referee William Mattus, who claimed Inamoto had fouled to win the ball before chipping it in.

Replays were inconclusive, prompting Japan Coach Philippe Troussier to rail afterward, "The referee might have thought that Belgium were the home team. I wonder if the decisions [he made] were fair."

Belgium has a reputation for bland soccer, but its first goal of the 2002 World Cup was worthy of Brazil. Eric Van Meir lofted the ball into the penalty area for Wilmots, who leaped to meet the ball and fired an overhead kick past Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki just inside the near post.

Belgians don't often witness this sort of thing, unless it's being done against Belgium. A stunned Belgium Coach Robert Waseige ran out of adjectives for the play, describing Wilmots, simply, as "our priceless captain."

Yet, two minutes after that goal, Belgium's lead was gone. And eight minutes after that, Japan had the lead, courtesy of two rapid-fire strikes by Takayuki Suziki, who latched onto a long pass and toe-poked the ball past keeper Geert De Vlieger, and Inamoto, who outran three defenders and beat De Vlieger inside the far post.

Belgium salvaged the tie in the 75th minute, when defender Peter Van Der Heyden pushed up on a counterattack and chipped over Narazaki from 12 yards.

Waseige said he was "satisfied" with the result, noting that "after losing control of the game to Japan, at least we came back. We were basically playing an away game.... The crowd was more than a 12th man for the Japanese team. They were exceptional."

Troussier was less pleased, but acknowledged the tie gave his team "a historic point, because it's the first point Japan has got in the World Cup."

In its first trip to the World Cup in 1998, Japan scored one goal in three games and finished 0-3.

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