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Day 16: Goodbye, you Boys In Green
June 16, the lobby of the Pan Pacific Hotel, 4:35 a.m.
I won't bore you with all the details of my nightmare trip from Niigata, but let's just say projectile vomiting.
I finally make it back to my hotel six hours and five minutes after leaving the stadium and just don't have the heart to tell the assistant concierge that I will not be leaving for Oita in the morning. She has stayed long after she was supposed to leave to hand me the envelope with my air, train and hovercraft tickets and all the details for my three-day trip to Oita, Osaka and Kobe. I'm just too tired, I have to write and for just one instant, I feel a little footballed out.
I get back to my room to find an e-mail waiting for me. Are you George Waud in disguise? says the subject line. I open it, sensing its contents, and yes, George Waud, my best mate, international playboy, fellow Chelsea fan and upper-class football yob is coming to Japan for the England-Brazil game. I need to feel better. This will require all my strength.
Media Center, Press Room, 3:30 p.m.
I awake at 1:20 p.m., shower, change and head off to the lobby to explain to Satoe Sugie, the head concierge, that I am so sorry for all the work her team put in, but have decided to skip a couple of games to do some writing. "I think I am seeing a ghost," she says when she sees me, but accepts my apology with an inevitable "no problem" and kind offer to send me more room service. I head off to the media center to watch my favorite team-in-law, Sweden, playing against Senegal.
I must say I enjoy this match thoroughly. It's actually quite nice to watch it on television, which does a great job of telling the story, the closeups, the replays, the crowd shots and the goal celebrations. I can tell you one thing -- if El Hadji Diouf is going to Liverpool, he's going to have to do something about that haircut. Henri Camara's golden goal in the 104th minute is a heartbreaking way for Sweden to leave the tournament, especially as their own Anders Svensson (John Smith in Sweden) had hit the post just moments before.
While the game is fantastically entertaining, I can't stop thinking about the German legend Franz Beckenbauer's comments in the paper Saturday. He basically said that it was useless for the game for us to be watching a bunch of overtired European-based players, struggling in the heat and humidity to play half-decent football.
There is considerable truth to what he's saying. Teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are far superior to all of these teams, and the football they play week-in and week-out is technically far superior. The World Cup is played at a level below top European club soccer. It is slower, and most teams have hardly ever played with each other before. This partly explains why teams like Japan, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, the United States are doing so well here. Their players have far fewer European club commitments, are less exhausted (many European players have just concluded a punishing 60- or 70-plus-game season in mostly cold weather) and have played with each other as a team more often. But that is what is making this World Cup so compelling. So stuff it, Franz.
I'll tell you what is bothering me about this World Cup, though, and that is the fact Bruno Metsu, the Senegal coach, has worn the same suit and T-shirt for every game. No, not that. It's the offside rule. The linesmen are getting it wrong, time and time again, and frankly, with the speed of both the forwards' peeling runs and the defenders employment of the offside trap, there's no way they can get it right. How much would it truly hurt the game to limit the offside rule to players in the penalty area? Maybe a lot, I'm not sure.
The other rule driving me crazy is the one that says an injured player who is treated on the field has to be removed from the field and called back on by the referee before he can play again. This rule was adopted to punish players who fake injury to waste time or sucker the referee into carding opposing players. But more often than not, it punishes players who have been legitimately hurt and gives an advantage, however temporary, to the team that committed a horrible, injury-causing foul.
And while we're on about rules, I have some other suggestions:
10 rule changes that will never happen
1. Game starts with ball on center spot and both teams' slowest players on their goal lines, who then have to run as fast as they can to steal it when the whistle goes. Would get the fans into the game quickly.
2. Prizes for hitting the post or crossbar. Not much consolation for Svensson, but think how good Henri Camara would have felt about his in-off-the-post golden goal in extra time. "And Camara has scored, in-off-the-post, to send Senegal into the quarterfinals, and he'll be driving off in a brand new Chevy Blazer!"
3. Before second half, both teams hold center circle council and vote off their weakest link.
4. Mikes on goalies and strikers on penalties -- I want to hear the pre-kick taunting.
5. Goalies can't use hands -- it would be so cool to see them diving to intercept 60-mph power shots with their heads.
6. Fans vote on how to end games after extra time, using mechanisms at their seats (sound familiar?) -- another extra time, penalties or obstacle course.
7. In penalty shootouts, Fevernova replaced by Whiffle Ball.
8. If penalty shootouts are tied after five each, fans are randomly selcted from each team's side to take them. Drunken Irish would be very entertaining. Especially ones dressed as leprechauns.
9. Designated corner-kick teams run on the field on every corner -- lots of guys who are 7-foot-tall and have really big heads. USA would be No. 1 in the world -- Shaq could score every time.
10. At end of games, players must exchange shorts as well as shirts -- viewing figures among women and gay men will go through the roof.
Room 1412, The Pan Pacific, 8:30 p.m.
Return to my room, order room service and watch the Ireland game, wearing my new Ireland shirt I picked up in Osaka. Spain looks like the best team I've seen so far. But in the second half, they pull off a disappearing act that David Copperfield would be proud of. Ireland could have won this game in regular time. Ian Harte just never looked like he was going to score that penalty -- he looked terrified. The second penalty was one of the best refereeing decisions I have ever seen, because even though Fernando Hierro was basically holding the shirt he had just pulled off Niall Quinn's back and over his head with both hands, most refs just wouldn't have had the nerve to give a second penalty to the same team in the same half on a central defender going after a physically massive center forward. Well done, Anders Frisk of Sweden, despite your dodgy-looking tan and cheap highlights, you're a hell of a ref.
The penalty shootout is no way to end a World Cup game and is painfully harsh on Ireland, certainly the last team that deserves to exit in such an arbitrary fashion from this tournament. But it's always good television, the shootout. I loved and loathed every second of it -- and the cutaway to Mick McCarthy ... that was the unmistakable look of a manager who just knows his team has not spent enough time practicing penalty kicks.
Goodbye, Ireland. You deserved better. You deserved Roy Keane. Now you can go home for lashings of runny eggs, bacon and beer.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.
Complete 2002 World Cup coverage
Davies Day 15: Kids, don't do mingers
Davies Day 14: A World Cup twisted from its roots
Davies Day 13: Ending on a low note
Davies Day 12: Fast train to nowhere
Davies Day 11: It just keeps getting better
Davies Day 10: Seeing red, white, blue ... and green
Davies Day 9: Cheering for jolly old Nippon
Davies Day 8: Nobody knows anything
Davies Day 7: Soccer is the curse of the drinking class
Davies Day 6: I've got your U.S. boys' backs
Davies Day 5: Turning Japanese
Davies Day 4: Satellite Stadium, take a bow
Davies Day 3: Where's the passion?
Davies Day 2: Ga-ga over the boys in green
Davies Day 0 and Day 1: The 'other' football