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Lingering animosity at Asian Cup

Chinese police remove an anti-Japanese banner put up by Chinese spectators at one of Japan's matches.
start quote"It's a sports event. Why can't we just enjoy it?"end quote
-- Japan PM Junichiro Koizumi

(CNN) -- In the end, it could have been much worse.

Lingering animosity between Japan and China had threatened to boil over onto the sporting field when the two nations clashed in Saturday's final of soccer's Asian Cup in Beijing.

But blood was not spilt, thanks largely to a strong security effort involving 6,000 personnel at and around the Worker's Stadium.

Riot police dispersed hundreds of rioting Chinese fans who blocked roads outside the stadium and forced about 2,000 Japan fans to wait for a few hours inside the stadium before being allowed to leave.

The Chinese rioters threw bottles, burned Japanese flags and showered a vitriol of obscenities.

During the match, howls of derision and waves of booing were heaped on the Japan team almost every time they touched the ball during their relatively easy 3-1 win.

The Japanese team has been met with jeers from hecklers in the stands who booed the players and their national anthem throughout the championship, which was being held in China.

The worst instance was in Chongqing where Japan played a series of group games. There, an angry mob stormed Japan's team bus and riot police had to be called in to escort fans out of the stadium.

The incidents override the old adage that sport and politics don't mix and underscore the tensions that still exist between the East Asian neighbors.

The scenes led the Japanese media to call into question China's ability to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Reports and editorials suggested China was unfit for the task because of poor sportsmanship shown by some Chinese soccer fans.

China's government and state media responded by saying the Japanese media had blown things out of proportion.

Certainly the Japanese win -- they were defending champions and favorites heading into the tournament -- on Chinese soil was not well received.

Traditionally in sport, any showdown between rivals has an edge to it. But China and Japan's shared history adds another dimension.

Many in China have not forgiven Japan for its World War II atrocities, as evidenced by a banner displayed at one of Japan's games.

"Looking into history, apologize to Asia people," the banner read, referring to Japan's military aggression before and during World War II.

However, other issues still rile ordinary Chinese.

Both nations regularly bicker over the sovereignty of a chain of islands in the East China Sea.

Japanese disposal experts continue to work in China disposing of unexploded WWII munitions which still kill or poison many Chinese each year.

Last year, relations nose-dived further after a three-day sex romp involving hundreds of Japanese tourists and Chinese prostitutes at a hotel in south China.

Some Chinese were convinced the orgy was timed to humiliate China as it coincided with the eve of the anniversary of the start of Japan's occupation of China -- September 18, 1931.

Protest by Japanese government

The situation at the Asian Cup led the Japanese government to lodge a protest with China calling for them to bring their fans under control.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi was quoted in local media as saying the booing was "deplorable."

"I want Chinese soccer fans to reflect a little more on their anti-Japanese actions ... it is not conducive to advancing Japan-China relations," he said.

China pledged to rein in its fans, but in a statement Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan also hit out at the Japanese media for what he said was politicizing the issue.

"International soccer matches often witness extreme behavior by a handful of fans. We do not agree with this," Kong said in a statement on the ministry's Web site.

"But it must also be pointed out that some Japanese media have stirred up and exaggerated the behavior of a few people, and even linked this with politics," Kong added.

"We express our regret at this."

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