By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2

Day 11: The calm before the Irish storm

Yokohama, 9:05 a.m.
For some reason I am running again along the bay toward the Red Warehouse District. I have little to do until this evening, when Ireland plays those lovely chaps from Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't stop me running at a good 12-minute mile pace to the beat of The Dandy Warhols in my earphones. John Barnes, the former England winger, is running toward me from the other direction. "Hi, John!" I yell. "Hi, Dave," he replies, good-naturedly. He looks a little confused, but gives me a nice salute. Never met him, he's never met me.

Back in my room, the Pan Pacific Hotel, 10:50 a.m.
With the cleaning crew all around me, I decide to catch up on my reading, all football, of course, and I'm not talking about Nick Hornby. There is, though, at least one real writer covering this World Cup, though, the hysterical American humorist, Bill Bryson. He's working for The Times of London. This was his take on the England-Argentina game from Friday night:

Well, the one thing I learnt on Friday night at the England match in Sapporo is that it is possible to pull all the hair out of your head and not notice. Indeed, during the 25-minute eternity when England so sportingly allowed Argentina to take all the shots they wanted (and I remain certain that, during one particularly intensive spell, Argentina had four balls in play and 19 players on the pitch, two of them on horseback, though I am told this cannot be so), I had to ask the man in front of me if I could pull out his hair as well as I was running short, and he very kindly allowed me to.

Nobody told me -- did not even come close to hinting -- how unbearably exciting, how joyously nerve-racking, it is to attend an England match in a World Cup. This is particularly so, of course, when the opponents are Argentina, the score is close and the alternative to victory is probable extinction. I simply haven't words to describe it. If you can imagine being repeatedly run over by a train in the world's noisiest place and thinking: "Wow, this is great! Pass those wheels over me again, boys," you are part way to appreciating what it was like to be there in person.

Sorry that was so long, but I just had to show you that an American who could previously give a rat's ass about football is just as caught up in the drama of this magnificent event as the rest of us.

Press Room, International Media Center, 5:30 p.m.
And it just got better. Can you say au revoir mes amis? And so Mesdames et Messieurs, here are my:

11 reasons (and a last minute sub) why this is the best World Cup ever

Jesper Gronkjaer, David Trezeguet, Peter Kjaer, Thomas Helveg
Jesper Gronkjaer consoles France's David Trezeguet after Denmark's 2-0 win Tuesday.

1. France just lost to Denmark -- They are now eliminated from the World Cup and have to go home. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 francs and do not defend your championship. Incidentally, France's lauded offense scored absolutely nul points during this tournament. Bon voyage!

2. The Japanese -- I'm sure everyone over there in Korea is saying the same thing about the Koreans, but I just love this team, their fans and the way the Japanese have staged this tournament. Kazuyuki Toda is definitely my favorite new player. Come on, you Shimuzu S-Pulse! But both of Junichi Inamoto's goals will be indelibly etched on my memory forever, and not just because they repeat them on Japanese TV every three minutes.

3. This is The World Cup of Hair -- And speaking of Toda, how about these haircuts? This tournament is going to be more popular with hairdressers than women's figure skating in the Olympics. Clint Mathis (Mohawk), Inamoto (peroxide), Taribo West (pointy bam-bam pigtails), David Beckham (shaggy-mulletty-Mohawky thing), Fredrik Ljungberg and Toda (red roosters), Zinedine Zidane (monk), Stig Tofting (bouncer). Young men with way too much time on their hands.

4. England Beating Argentina -- If you're English, or Bill Bryson, you'll understand what it was like to be there last Friday. I will never forget it, even if we lose to them in the semifinal.

Taribo West
Nigeria's Taribo West has toughness to go with his distinct hairdo.

5. The U.S. team pissing off the foreign press -- And a little less importantly, having four points going into its final first round game against Poland. "Frie-del Wo-orld, Let them Know It's Christmas Time again/Frie-del Wo-orld &" Just a little chant idea for Sam's army. And by the way, the whispers about DaMarcus Beasley are becoming deafening -- European clubs are lining up.

6. Parity -- Some thought 32 teams were too many for a quality World Cup, and perhaps in 1998 they were. But huge advances in Asia, Africa and North and Central America and a slight decline across Europe and certainly in South America have leveled the playing field and made Round One, usually a bit lopsided, thrillingly competitive. And then there's Poland, China and Saudi Arabia.

7. It's Mathtastic! -- The final set of group matches is fascinating, with endless scenarios for who goes home, who stays and who plays who in the Round of 16. Points, goal difference, goals scored, number of dives in the penalty area, dirty fouls, stitches inflicted on imposing teams. The tie-break possibilities are endless.

8. The Boys In Green -- And I'm not talking about Senegal (can't stand them now that one of their players dived in the area against Uruguay ... oh, yes and it might be playing England next). I love the plucky Irish team. But Robbie Keane's last-minute goal against Germany was essentially scored by their unwavering and inspirational fans.

9. Nigeria's Goal Against Sweden -- It was one of the greatest goal celebrations I have ever seen -- Julius Agahowa's seven backflips and stuck-somersault landing only beaten by the fan reaction shot in the crowd of the big Nigerian guy in the pink bra dancing.

Robbie Keane, Ian Harte, Gary Green, Gary Kelly
Robbie Keane cartwheels after scoring against Saudi Arabia.

10. Free-flowing offensive football -- Is it the new Fevernova ball, or is it just modern training techniques and the fact so many of these guys play in the top leagues in the world -- England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Holland? And those who don't -- Japan, South Korea, the United States -- play in countries where the national team gets together a lot and plays as a unit? I don't know, but if you ask me, football's getting better. If you were lucky enough to see Uruguay coming back from 3-0 down to tie Senegal today (and they really should have beaten them), you know what I mean. My God, it was unbelievable. Even Manchester United's Diego Forlan scored a goal. I think I've seen everything.

11. Arsenal humiliated -- Not on most people's list, but I'm for Chelsea. Today they finally 'fessed up to the fact they released Japan's World Cup star, Inamoto, just before the World Cup started. On a free transfer. That will cost them millions and plenty of face. Moreover, one of their rivals (i.e. Chelsea, Ken Bates) can pick him up for free.

Media Tribune, Yokohama Stadium, 9:20 p.m.
Ireland has scored their third, an appalling shot straight through the 'keeper that reminds me a bit of a goal I scored in primary school, and below me I can see Mick McCarthy and the Irish bench celebrating. The Boys in Green are through to the last 16 and, despite a pretty dour performance this evening against a not-quite-as-crap-as-I-hoped Saudi outfit, they deserve to be there. Germany wins the group though, beating Cameroon, which has shown all the lack of defensive organization that African football is famous for, and that I'm hoping for tomorrow from Nigeria.

Some wonderful Irish banners are in the stadium tonight. One, so simple, features the red-on-white Japanese flag in the middle of the Irish green and orange. But it makes its point -- at least as many, and probably more, Japanese are wearing green as the Irish are tonight. Another Irish flag has "Elvis Lives" stamped over it, but perhaps they mean Elvis Costello. The only one I take an exception with is the one that says "The Irish, probably the best fans in the world." No one comes close.

Last Minute Sub -- replacing Arsenal Humiliated
12. The Irish Fans -- Tonight they will drink all the beer this side of Tokyo. They deserve every last drop. "You'll never walk alone" they're singing nonstop now to their heroic, mostly journeymen players. I wonder what Roy Keane is thinking.

Michael Davies, a native of London, is executive producer of ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." He'll be filing five diary entries per week from the World Cup for Page 2.




Michael
Davies
CUP DIARY