A LEADING Japanese football official has defended his country's right to stage the 2002 World Cup finals, writes Jeremy Walker. Tadao Murata, vice-president of the Football Association of Japan, and a member of the organising committee for this summer's World Cup in the US, was replying to recent criticism from the president of the South Korea Football Association, Chung Mong-joon. Japan and South Korea are locked in a fierce struggle to stage the 2002 World Cup after FIFA president Joao Havelange said the first World Cup of the new millennium would be awarded to Asia. Speaking in Hong Kong last week, Chung said Japan were not qualified to enter a bid because they had never reached the finals, whereas South Korea had qualified four times and North Korea once. But Murata, who is secretary general of Japan's 2002 World Cup bidding committee, said: ''It is definitely wrong to say that because to participate in a World Cup and to organise a World Cup is a completely different thing. Around 190 countries try to qualify for the 24 places, but this does not mean there are 24 countries capable of organising the World Cup. ''In fact there are only 15 to 20 who can do it. ''To organise the World Cup, there are so many things to consider such as transportation, accommodation, communications and facilities. We began planning for our bid in 1986 and started our campaign in 1991 so we feel we can fulfil every FIFA requirement. ''Even if South Korea have qualified so many times, how many games have they played and how many points have they won?'' Murata said the success of the J.League would play a significant part of their bid. ''In the first season of the J.League we attracted almost 4.2 million fans and this year, with two extra teams, we are confident we will get five million. ''This proves we have become a footballing country and within five to 10 years more people will watch football than baseball.'' He added that baseball is only a major sport in about 15 countries while soccer is a truly international sport. The biggest problem facing Japanese football is to provide room for all the spectators wanting to watch the J.League, which has just started its second season. ''Most of the stadiums now can hold between 15,000 and 20,000 but we need to expand them to around 30 to 40,000.''