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Sunday, July 2, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Consternation characterizes response to Zico's World Cup flops


Though it may not be any consolation to local soccer fans, the Japanese team won the Humanoid Division in the RoboCup soccer competition that took place in Bremen on June 14-20.

The players may only be pokey little machines right now, but who knows what they'll be four years from now.

"RoboCup is the first step toward a vision," Minoru Asada, the president of the RoboCup Federation told the BBC. "This vision includes the development of a humanoid robot team of 11 players that can win against a human, soccer, world champion team."

That may be the only way a Japanese team will ever advance to the latter stages of the World Cup. After the Boys in Blue lost to Brazil, the media finally faced up to the obvious: Japan was outclassed from the word go. Fuji TV aired the results of a survey on June 25 and found that 70 percent of the respondents were now "aware of Japan's true capability," while the remaining 30 percent still believed "the Japanese team didn't demonstrate its real power."

This split in perception is represented by two soccer-loving TV personalities, comedian Akashiya Sanma, who went to Germany to cover the games for NTV, and Shingo Katori, the member of SMAP who has been the Samurai Blues' self-appointed "cheerleader" for the past several years. Sanma, who knows the game inside out, didn't talk much about the Japanese team during NTV's World Cup roundup on June 24. He was more interested in talking about the other teams he saw.

But over on TV Asahi's "SmaStation" the same night, Katori was still in a state of shock. While his guest, samurai actor Ken Matsudaira, watched in mute consternation, Katori pondered the tragedy over and over like a man in denial.

* * * * *

One person's humiliation is another's party. According to an editorial that appeared a few weeks ago in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Korean soccer fans were cheering for any team that played against Japan.

So much for the goodwill engendered four years ago when the two countries cohosted Asia's first World Cup finals.

The opening loss to Australia was particularly satisfying to South Korean fans since the Socceroos' coach, Guus Hiddink, used to lead the South Korean national team and reportedly promised to "crush" Japan on behalf of his old South Korean mates. However, the editorial mentioned that when Japanese TV carries Korean soccer games the commentators say they will root for Korea as fellow Asians even though a "rivalry" exists between the two countries.

The paper called for the same sort of magnanimity on the part of South Korean soccer fans for the sake of South Korea's image.

The implication seemed to be that it isn't good if other countries see Koreans ragging on Japan while Japan turns the other cheek and encourages its soccer enthusiasts to support Team Korea. Koreans should root for Japan, at least in public. They can always rag on them in private.

* * * * *

In the press conference after the draw with Croatia, Japan coach Zico complained that his team had had to play in the hot afternoon sun for both of its games up to that point. "Soccer is a business," he griped. "And the players are often sacrificed."

Given FIFA President Sepp Blatter's mercenary bent, the comment is hardly a revelation, but was Zico insinuating that FIFA had it in for the Boys in Blue? Or was he sending a bitter message to the Japanese business side?

Asahi Shimbun looked into the matter. The kickoff times for all World Cup games are either 3 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. Germany time. In the first round, 17 of the 32 competing teams played games at 3 p.m., when the temperature on the pitch reached as high as 40 C. However, only three of these teams were scheduled to play two of their games at 3 p.m. -- Togo, Serbia and Montenegro and Japan, none of whom advanced to the second round.

When the original lots were drawn last December to determine matches and times, none of Japan's games were at 3 p.m. However, FIFA officials later changed the times for the first two games to 3 p.m., presumably to satisfy Japanese broadcasters, who together had paid FIFA 14 billion yen for the rights to air games. Germany is seven hours behind Japan, so 3 p.m. games can be broadcast live during Japanese prime time.

According to Video Research, the ratings tracking company, the Australia and Croatia matches, which aired here at 10 p.m., drew 49 and 53 percent audience shares, respectively, while the match against Brazil, which was aired at 4 a.m. in Japan, got a 23 percent share. Shukan Asahi quoted an anonymous person "related" to the issue as saying that Japanese broadcasters asked FIFA to change the kickoff times to 3 p.m.

Dentsu, the advertising company in charge of distributing the rights, told Asahi Shimbun the times "were completely FIFA's decision." TV Asahi, who broadcast the Croatia game live, said, "We didn't negotiate anything."

* * * * *

When he was in Germany on assignment for Fuji TV's morning news show "Tokudane," host Tomoaki Ogura visited a public sports complex (Sportschule) where anyone can use state-of-the-art facilities, including seven natural-grass, fullsize soccer pitches.

Ogura contrasted this with the situation in Japan where "only elite students" can play soccer on grass. He marveled at the money spent on such facilities and implied that this may be the reason for Japan's poor showing in the World Cup.

He's half right. The problem in Japan isn't that facilities suck, but that all facilities are controlled, all sports organized. If Japanese children don't take up soccer spontaneously, the way they do in South America and Europe, and Africa, it's because there is no place for them to do it.

The great thing about soccer is that all you need is a ball and an available empty field. In Japan, all you get is the ball.



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