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Sunday, Dec. 8, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Take me back to the ball game


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer
WE ARE NIPPON: The World Cup in Japan, by Simon Moran. S.U. Press, 2002, 190 pp., 1,500 yen (paper)

As anyone who was here will undoubtedly recall, things got a little raucous in Japan and South Korea last summer. But hosting a World Cup will do that to a nation or, as in this case, two nations.

The 2002 World Cup was unique in many ways, not least that it was being held in Asia for the first time and being jointly hosted for the first time. It was also -- after seven tournaments where he found himself in the wrong part of the planet -- Simon Moran's first time at the sharp end of a World Cup.

Moran was one of the genuinely fortunate few to be granted a press pass for 14 of the games that took place in Japan, including the Brazil-Germany final in Yokohama. As he himself points out, there were people who would have sold their first-born children for those passes . . .

Moran's book -- "We are Nippon" -- is a mostly light-hearted charting of his World Cup progress, starting well before a ball is even kicked in anger and ending with one of the better final matches in living memory.

As a Briton, his book naturally gravitates to the England team's performances -- with David Beckham, beer and beer bellies featuring heavily -- but he clearly has a soft spot for his adoptive country and their fans. The admiration he expresses for the way ordinary Japanese people treated foreign supporters, especially in light of the less-than-flattering portrayal of British fans, in particular, by the mass media, is unforced.

The inevitable drawback with a first-person narrative of an event like the World Cup is that the writer is only able to recount his or her own experiences.

As anyone who was there will tell you, their feats of derring-do were unique and special to them and it's hard to get caught up in the frenzy of someone else's experiences. Costa Rica and South Africa, for example, hardly even get a mention from Moran, which might rankle with someone who had traveled half-way around the world to follow those two nations.

With the problem unavoidable -- I'm certain I've bored colleagues, family and friends to tears with my very own World Cup tales of joy and woe -- it's how the writer gets round it that matters.

To his credit, Moran digresses from the "me, myself, I" routine at every opportunity with examinations of the chaotic ticketing problems that fans faced, the phenomenon that was Japan manager Philippe Troussier and -- of course -- the adulation heaped upon Beckham, primarily by Japanese women.

The populating of the book with a small cast of diverse characters also offers vastly different perspectives on the beautiful game, from Alfred, a rather scary uber-patriotic German, and Pak, an ethnically confused third-generation Korean resident of Japan, to other assorted izakaya chefs and fellow footy lovers.

Amusingly, the one thing that unites these fans is their utter contempt for the United States playing "their" game -- and horror when the U.S. progresses to the final eight of the tournament. Having said that, and as a fellow fan, I think we should brace ourselves for the day when, sacrilege of all sacrileges, a Yank lifts the World Cup.

Initially, I thought that the book had come out too late to ride the new wave of post-World Cup enthusiasm for football ("soccer," if I must . . .), but the more I read, the more goals that Moran describes, sounds in the stadiums, fans' painted faces and all the rest of the three-ring circus that the tournament became brought those days back to me.

Memories like that -- particularly if you are a Brazilian, naturally -- are ones that are likely to stay with you to your dying day and should be revisited regularly.

"We Are Nippon" can be purchased online via the S.U. Press Web site ( www.japanfile.com/we_are_nippon), or from the S.U. Press office (e-mail: supress@japanfile.com; tel: 078-232-4517; fax: 078-232-4518).


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