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Japan's 'ballkids' take the spotlight

World Cup balls
Japanese custom officers check the official balls of the 2002 FIFA World Cup  

From Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief

(CNN) -- The spotlight and the glory will go to the players of this year's high-profile sporting event that is the World Cup.

But a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure the tournament runs smoothly also deserve credit.

Among those people will be more than 300 teenagers serving as 'ballkids' -- Japanese youngsters tasked to fetch stray balls during the matches.

In Japan's Yokohama Hayato High School, 12 soccer players have been given the unique chance to partake in the tournament.

Satoshi Tokiwa said being a ballboy is a privilege because it will allow him to watch the match up-close.

He said his task would give him the opportunity to learn the techniques of the world's greatest soccer players, which he can use when he goes professional in the future.

Some 32 teams of ballkids were selected from more than 800 applicant teams. But the selection process has more to do with a person's enthusiasm than with soccer skills.

Soccer teams from around the country sent in videotapes showing their love for the game and for the World Cup. Those with the most personality and energy won.

And while the tournament is considered a strictly male affair, and most of the ballkids are boys, a few girls have been invited to share the dream.

A handful of girls from the Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School will serve as ballgirls at the Saudi Arabia versus Ireland match on June 11.

Although they're not the best girl's team in Japan, judges likened the fact that one of their members, Yuri Son, is ethnic Korean. Korea is co-hosting the games with Japan.

In return, the Korea Sports Council is recruiting Japanese fans to help cheer for the Korean team.

Yuri Son, who was born and raised in Japan, said she hopes the World Cup would help erase prejudices between the co-hosts that are also war-time foes.


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