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Sunday, May 12, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Chewing the cud with cheap shots at soccer


Here's a confession for you -- a self-insight I discovered just the other night:

I would rather watch animal shows than soccer.

"But Dad, don't you see?" My younger son's voice squeaks. His eyes spring out as if they're on stalks. "It's time for the World Cup! THE WORLD CUP!"

He then trembles as if he has voiced something holy -- a kind of reverence he usually reserves only for all-you-can-eat dessert bars.

"Yeah . . . but just look at these cows. See how they chew the cud. So thoroughly. So . . . willfully. Why . . . I could watch this all night."

"Dad, puleeeaase!"

So I flip the channel and we, like the rest of Japan, join the mania for Asia's first World Cup.

That is, my son joins the mania. As for me, I continue to dwell on what I would rather watch, which includes bashful bovines and that other boring "B" word -- baseball.

OK, maybe I'm behind the times. I grew up in North America in the days when soccer was considered one of the lesser sports -- sort of like darts.

Television showed about one soccer game a year, edited down to the highlights. Which meant -- if the game was exciting -- a clip of about 15 to 20 seconds. I could never see the attraction.

An older buddy tried to explain it: "Soccer is a game for people who are sort of interested in ice hockey, but aren't too fond of skates, fights or action."

I share this line with an Aussie friend, who responds by saying, "How amusing. Too bad a few billion people disagree."

So? I still know what I like, and it has nothing to do with watching a ball booted lazily across a wide field for a couple of hours in a contest that ends up tied, 0-0.

"That's because you're too ignorant to see the game's subtleties."

I am also too ignorant, I tell him, to see the subtleties of plywood. That doesn't mean I want to stare at it for hours and hours.

"Why not?" he smirks. "It beats baseball."

Ouch. Yet even I admit local baseball has problems. The one-time king of domestic sports has seen its popularity shrivel like a plum in the sun. To explain why, my son offers the following in-depth critique:

"It stinks."

Constipation will do that, and baseball here has been plugged too long with the focus on just one team. Add a touch of poor quality to a growing pinch of talent flowing overseas to the fat shovelful of Giants worship and the result is the current state of Japanese baseball -- a rather rotten pie that keeps getting smaller.

But the really big concern -- for baseball fans -- is that the nation's best young athletes are becoming more and more fascinated with that other game, the one for which the entire world is now coming to Japan and South Korea.

For if there ever was a sport to match this overcrowded, overcostly nation, soccer is it. All a boy or girl needs is a soccer ball and an open space, and the game is on.

Contrast this with baseball, a game which requires the same open space, a ball, a bat and one glove per player -- not to mention Giants' caps -- and it's not difficult to predict that soccer's Japanese sun has only begun its rise.

This does not mean I like it.

"C'mon," I tell my son. "You've been watching for 15 minutes, and there hasn't been a shot on goal. Meanwhile, those cows might be rioting!"

"Go away," he tells me. For he sees this, and every match these days, as a pressure-packed warm-up to the ultimate climax -- a Japanese World Cup championship.

Now wouldn't that be something. Japan would go berserk with joy. It would be like Godzilla was on the loose, only instead of stomping people he was handing out money. TV would show nothing but soccer replays for the rest of the millennium. The Diet might even pass a motion to have a smiley face printed on the center of the Japanese flag.

And baseball here would suffer yet another body blow.

Not that this is going to happen. For if enthusiasm was all that was required for a World Cup title, Japan would probably first fall to its South Korean neighbors, who seem even more jacked for the games than the Japanese. The rest of the world, too, may have a bit to say about who wins.

Yet, no matter how you cut it, the big loser does look to be baseball.

I was raised on baseball, the way some people are raised on whole wheat, and so I feel melancholy at the turn of events, even if the Giants do choke up the airwaves.

"Baseball, volleyball, hairball -- who cares?"

The speaker is my wife, whose knowledge of the sporting world is roughly comparable to the vastness of our universe -- which is, by and large, empty.

"From my view, each sport has too much popularity already. They could all use a lot less attention. No matter who wins or loses, the Earth is still going to spin. And as long as it does, I would prefer to dwell on real life, not sports."

I nod at this wisdom and decide to apply it at once.

"See!" I tell my son. "Mom wants to watch cows, too!"

Or, I then suggest, how about some buffaloes? The Kintetsu version?

Now that, I sigh, is the kind of animal for me.



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