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Saturday, July 10, 2010


Why I like Japanese soccer fans

The rainy season is my favorite time of the year. I just love to walk out the door and see the flowers in my garden wearing those big huge grins. But that's not the only reason I like the rainy season — it's a great excuse to stay inside and watch sports. The fact that the World Cup always falls during Japan's rainy season is a miracle that can only be attributed to "the hand of god." Or is it the hands of God now?

I look forward to retirement, when I can sit around all day and watch sports. I just worry that my pension won't cover my beer and cable TV expenses. There is not a single sport I can think of that I don't like. Tennis? Great game. Sumo? Bring it on! Someone recently introduced me to cricket. Lovely! And it takes all day, an aspect of the game I really admire: more time for sports! I'm even looking forward to someday learning lawn bowling.

So you can imagine how eager I was to watch World Cup soccer, after three years and 11 grueling months of waiting. After all, it's not that often you get the chance to experience jet lag without ever leaving Japan. Now that much of Japan has adjusted to South African time in order to see the games live on TV, I wonder what we'll do with ourselves in the weeks following the final. 3:30 a.m. may become prime time.

Adjusting to a new time zone is never easy, and waking up in time to see the games was a problem at the beginning. I admit there were times I even cheated. For the 3:30 a.m. games, I'd get up at 4:30 a.m. and just watch the last half. Until the finals, I found this very effective. Why bother even playing the first half? If all games started in the second half, more people would have been able to watch them.

At first, I tried using an alarm clock to get myself out of bed, but that didn't always work. Later, I discovered a better way to wake up on time: by using the bladder alarm. Drink a few glasses of water before you go to bed and you're going to be happy to get up in a few hours. That's why they're called the wee hours of the morning.

There's no better time to be an expat than during the World Cup because you can switch allegiance with ease. After America was out of the running, I could still root for Japan. When Japan was knocked out, I switched to Holland, where my husband was born. I look at the Holland team now as if they are my in-laws. I've watched some of these players for so many weeks now, they're like my brothers.

Some people say Americans don't like soccer. But in a country like the U.S., with so many sports, I don't understand why we shouldn't embrace soccer too. Anyone who likes sports should be able to understand the skill and training needed to play at a professional level. Soccer players should command the same respect as other athletes for physical fitness, skill and endurance. And their game too.

I even enjoyed watching the Italians, who are said to have suffered because of aging team members such as their team captain Fabio Cannavaro, 36 years old. But look at what they are doing at their age! The Italians are still incredible athletes. With awesome socks.

Perhaps I am in awe because I'm one of those athlete wannabes. I'm also an athlete used-ta-be. I even have athlete's foot to prove it. The fact that these soccer players, against all odds, made it big in their sport fuels my respect for them. I relish in their success, the success I never had. Hey, at least it inspires me to continue my "200 sit-ups a day" app on my iPhone.

I also suspect some people don't realize how much physical stress an athlete puts their body through. The athlete's body is constantly pushed to its limits. The knees are usually the first to go in most sports, subject to too much stress. The body aches from previous injuries. And you thought human sacrifice was illegal?

I am one of the hundreds of thousands who went out and trained, gave it their best, but failed to make it big in their sport. After years of training, I never broke the top 10 in my country. Instead, I remained at number 11. The only good thing is that I can no longer sit seiza.

By the time I hit retirement age, I fully expect to be incapacitated, confined to a La-Z-Boy chair. Watching sports.

So what is this all leading up to? Thanks for asking. While many criticize the Japanese for only watching the Japanese team play during the World Cup, to the contrary, I think this is the ultimate compliment for an athlete. People who otherwise wouldn't watch soccer at all are now watching because their athletes are playing. Die-hard soccer fans are going to watch all the games anyway. But the Japanese athletes have been successful in getting the fringe to watch too. And they probably enjoy a healthy conversion rate of those who, like in the U.S., thought they didn't like soccer.

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