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Sunday, Feb. 21, 1999

JAPAN LITE

Two-legged enlightenment in land of soccer gods


Let's talk about religion. Soccer, that is. Many Americans don't like soccer because they say there's not enough action. Americans like fast action sports like American football, rugby and ice hockey. Not me. I like soccer because it's slow. I can get up, go to the bathroom, refill my beer and popcorn, and when I come back 15 minutes later I know I will not have missed anything.

Another thing I like about soccer is the team scarves. I like a sport that includes an element of fashion. The scarf is important not only because you can wave it in the air when your team makes a goal, but it also keeps you warm during those chilly games in Europe.

Soccer stadiums have their own weather patterns. A nice sunny day in your neighborhood is bound to be a cloudy, cold and snowy day at the stadium. Stadium weather generally drops by 10 to 20 degrees as soon as the game starts and the wind picks up at halftime. By the end of the game it's snowing, your feet are numb and your nose is frozen. But your team is winning -- it's a different kind of warmth.

I have to admit that it's nice to be in a country again where it is acceptable to blow your nose in public. In Japan, I usually just sniffle along with everyone else to be polite. But there's nothing like being able to blow your nose freely, complete with those trumpeting elephant sounds. You see, my nose doesn't like to travel. As soon as I get to another destination, my nose starts running and I start sneezing. I have to always keep tissues in my pocket.

It makes me wonder where all those nose fluids come from. There must be a large storage of nose stuff up there. I wonder if anyone has studied the possibilities of using the space up there in the nose to store things such as keys and passports. I also wonder if someone hasn't studied the possibility of making thermal suits for soccer fans, kind of like ski suits for skiers, except ones that would plug into an outlet in the stadium seat. Soccer suits would be very fashionable.

Part of my enthusiasm for soccer comes from my husband Mario, who played professional soccer for nine years in Peru and the United States, and also coaches. Part of his coaching education involves going to games and practices, watching techniques and drills and talking with coaches and players.

Sometimes, this requires pilgrimages to other countries. We've been to Peru to see Cubillas, to Spain to see Stoicov (before he joined the J.League), to England to see Klinsman and most recently to Florence to see Batistusta (or Bati as the locals call him) as well as Rome to see Vieri and Salas (the Matador).

As a bonus, we had the chance to watch Nakata play against Rome on the Perugia team. Nakata enjoyed his own cheering section of a few hundred Japanese fans in the stadium who were heavily guarded by the Italian security guards. Despite Nakata's skillful control of the ball and nine goals for the season behind him, he couldn't save Perugia from the force of Rome's Lazio, who is in second place in the Italian league (Serie A). The game ended 3 to 0.

The best soccer players in the world come to play in Italy. Just one team practice draws several hundred spectators. So we were thrilled to be able to attend the games, wave our team scarves and yell "forza!" (force!) to the home team.

While in Rome, we also found time to take part in the other kind of religious pilgrimage -- we went to see the pope. Pope John Paul II, who sometimes invites soccer players to the Vatican City, gave a public audience to 10,000 people on a Wednesday morning. The pope's fans are just as zealous as the tifosi (soccer fans) and many people in the audience were waving flags and banners and singing religious songs. Some groups even chanted their own pope cheers. After the pope gave his speech in five or 10 languages, various groups from the audience were introduced. As it turned out, some of Nakata's fans were there too -- Japanese students from Kagoshima Junior College.

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com



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