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SOCCER MIKE PENNER

A Few Thoughts Before a Nap

July 02, 2002|MIKE PENNER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — It is the day after the World Cup final in Yokohama and it is so quiet, you can hear a security guard nod off at the entrance to the international media center.

He is standing up and sleeping at the same time, kind of like a German soccer fan, wobbling a bit as I pass through the door but maintaining his balance all the time. An impressive feat, if a little unorthodox, but after five weeks of this, plus injury time, you've got to do what you've got to do.

Inside, I see sportswriters keeled over their keyboards. I see sportswriters staring at the coffee machine, too mentally glazed to figure out which button means cream and which is the coin return. I see sportswriters flipping through their hotel room keys, ATM cards and subway passes, muttering to themselves because none of them seem to work in the pay phones at their desks.

Travel fatigue is common at the end of a World Cup or an Olympics, but this is the worst case I have ever seen. That is, when I've been able to keep my eyes open.

It's really no secret why. We were sold a bill of goods when we were handed our press credentials and told we would be covering the one and only World Cup, the single biggest soccer tournament in existence.

Truth is, we were actually covering three World Cups.

The first involved 32 teams from 32 nations, playing 64 games to determine one champion.

The second involved Japan and South Korea, engaged in a very serious game of one-upmanship, each bidding to become the co-host with the most.

The third involved FIFA czar Joseph "Sepp" Blatter and his glad-handing, back-slapping band of cronies, comfortably sequestered in their own little world while fans waged a daily struggle to get hotel rooms, train schedules and game tickets that weren't available, even though large blocks of seats went unused, game after game.

Final results:

* Brazil won the first World Cup, over Germany, 2-0, in the final.

* South Korea won the second World Cup, over Japan in a close one.

* FIFA thinks it won the third World Cup, in a shootout, but the real world is protesting.

Blatter (sounds like blather) kept saying that the tournament was progressing swimmingly--which, considering the dearth of available plane flights, was the only travel option left for some fans trying to get from Japan to Korea and back again so they could follow their teams.

He said, "Co-hosting has had only a positive influence on the game. We have had wonderful stadia, good hospitality and perfect logistics."

This is clearly the view of a man who watches the World Cup from the back seat of his air-conditioned limousine and the penthouse suite of his five-star hotel.

Many of the stadiums were impressive, if gray concrete is your idea of an innovative color scheme. Japan and South Korea spent billions in a stadium-building frenzy, not because each country needed 10 new soccer stadiums, but because the other guy was building 10 new stadiums. It sounded like a Far Eastern riff on the "I will have two fillings" commercials that ran during the 1999 Women's World Cup:

I will have 10 stadiums!

And I will have 10 stadiums!

Did the small city of Oita, nestled between two national parks on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, really need a new 42,000-seat soccer stadium with a retractable roof? With fans traveling to and from games via hovercraft?

"It's like putting Texas Stadium in the middle of Lake Elsinore," one U.S. writer quipped.

Because these facilities needed to be useful after their allotted three World Cup games were played, many used the same multi-purpose design--meaning a running track encircling the playing field, meaning fans pushed up and away from the action.

U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said that worked to his team's benefit when the Americans played South Korea in Daegu, with the fan noise slightly muted by the distance between the stands and the field.

Good hospitality? There was plenty of that. Volunteers in both countries were friendly, courteous and helpful--although the Japanese penchant for punctuality, cleanliness and order caused media centers to be shut down too often before writers could finish their work. (Memo to JAWOC: Sportswriters, at least uncouth Western types, cannot comprehend "no eating" and "no drinking" signs when they are on deadline.)

I spent time in both countries and found South Korea to be more laid-back and go-with-the-flow flexible. Yes, I know, it was a tournament of upsets. Getting things done, such as changing money or buying plane tickets, was easier there, as opposed to Japan, where every small transaction seemed to require forms filled out in triplicate and committee consultation.

Japan gets the nod for food, however. The bento box lunches that sustained me on train trips were unfailingly delicious, even if I did not recognize half of what I was eating, and certainly were an upgrade over the dried squid, cold sausages and banana-flavored milk served in Korea.

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