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Friday, June 14, 2002
Updated: May 30, 4:45 PM ET
A World Cup twisted from its roots

By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2

Day 14: From sleepless to speechless

June 14, "Bird", the jazz club/bar at the Mayoko Inn, 2:15 1.m.
I don't know how to tell these lovely people that I missed my hovercraft. In fact, I don't know how to say anything to them except for arigato (thanks) and kampai (cheers). It's comical really, I try to tell them that I'm a writer, and one of the waitresses, Yoshimi, says, "I understand, I understand," and pulls out her Zippo and lights my cigar. She points at it -- "Righter. Yes?" But it's amazing how much fun four people can have in a deserted bar with a Japanese dictionary. It's me, the owner, Aoki, and the two waitresses, Yoshimi and Aya. In three hours we manage to establish the following:

1. Aoki is 46 years old, owns the bar, gets drunk every night, loves Charlie Parker (hence "Bird") and rides a bicycle to and from work.

2. I am not Mexican.

3. If I come back ever again, I drink for free.

That's about it, but it really doesn't do the evening or conversation justice. Aoki, a charming man, buys me champagne, laughs at everything I say and has me write him a note and sign it, which he then tapes to the wall behind the bar. The club is supposed to close at 3 a.m., but I finally leave at 6. They walk me to the elevators and bow deeply as the doors close. I run to my room, brush my teeth, wash my face and hands and put on deodorant (aha! What my mother always called a whore's bath). I check out and get in a taxi bound for the docks.

ANA Flight 187, to Osaka, seat 14C
Andy Gray, the former Scottish International, is a few rows in front of me. I'm reading some e-mail I printed out last night at the media center. These ESPN ratings for Monday's U.S.-South Korea game are even more amazing than I thought:

Slim Ben Achour, Kazuyuki Toda
The mighty Kazuyuki Toda marks Tunisia's Slim Ben Achour, left.
Other highlights of U.S.-South Korea:

  • The highest-rated and most-watched program among men 18-34 ever on ESPN2, having averaged a 3.7 rating and 917,696 impressions in that demographic

  • Most-watched late-night (all programs starting 1 a.m.-6 a.m.) program ever on ad-supported cable for men 18-34 (computerized records date back to August 1991)

    Moreover, the U.S.-Poland game, which kicks off in about 12 hours, will be on at 7:30 a.m. ET; this was at 2:30 a.m. I expect more records to be broken. If not, more ranting.

    The Media Tribune, Nagai Stadium, Osaka, 3:25 p.m.
    This is the latest I've arrived so far, just five minutes before kickoff. I fell asleep at the hotel and forgot to get a wake-up call. I don't even have time to get the starting lineups from the pigeon holes in the media center. I find Taki in the observers' seats and get all misty-eyed for my beloved Nippon again during their hauntingly melodic national anthem. It must have been written by John Williams especially for this team for this World Cup, because it could not be more perfect. The game starts and I try to get into it. But I'm finding it hard, losing my concentration.

    Perhaps I'm tired, or perhaps, like Inamoto today, I'm just trying too hard. I decide to focus on just one thing, and that thing, dominant in the center of the park, is the red-coiffed enforcer from the Shimuzu S-Pulse -- TODA! That is the only way to spell Kazuyuki's name. TODA! TODA! Mighty TODA! Hard tackler TODA! Oozes confidence on ball. The glory will go to Hidetoshi Nakata, to Junichi Inamoto, to Takayuki Suzuki, but the center of this game, this team, its heart, its soul, its spleen, is TODA! And maybe TODA! will play for Chelsea next season. Japan wins 2-0.

    Brazilians in pool
    Unlike their countrymen in the media, Brazil's players don't seem to be worrying about the competition during a Friday swim.
    Nagai Stadium, Media Center, 7:05 p.m.
    Back in the media center I get involved in a conversation with a couple of Brazilian journalists. They tell me they're scared to face England in the quarterfinals, but I don't believe them. They ask me what I think of the Japanese team, and I tell them that for me, it's all about TODA! They tell me they were also impressed.

    "Do you think he will go to Europe?" one of them asks.

    "Oh, yes," I reply, "It looks like he's going to Chelsea." This is, of course, complete and utter crap, but one thing I learned during my years in Hollywood is sometimes you have to create some heat to make something happen. Tomorrow, it is highly likely that Chelsea Football Club will receive some calls from Rio de Janeiro. Maybe I should have told them he was going to Manchester United. It is still way over an hour until the 8:30 kickoffs of tonight's crucial and final first-round games that will decide Group D. I have an uneasy feeling -- perhaps it's the tuna curry sandwich I bought at the airport in Oita.

    Nagai Media Center, pay phones, 8:35
    I am waiting for Outlook to synchronize; I spend my life waiting for Outlook to synchronize. I'm sitting all the way over on the other side of the press room from the TVs showing the games -- or rather 15 TVs showing the South Korea-Portugal game and just one showing United States vs. Poland. Feeling a need to stand by and guard my electronics -- I watch the game through my binoculars. I get some looks, but I don't care. I loathe 95 percent of these people.

    There must be something wrong with my binoculars -- after five minutes the United States is already two down and have had one disallowed.

    The Bathroom, International Media Center, 10:35 p.m.
    When I need a good think, I go to the john. Ninety percent of you can relate. I just can't quite believe, let alone describe, or write, what I just watched on two televisions, side by side. Let's not sugarcoat this, the United States got luckier than Francesco Totti on a night out in Rome. Whatever Landon Donovan might think about the disallowed goal (it would have been disallowed by 95 percent of referees 95 percent of the time), or Poland's third (offside and handball, I think), or what Bruce Arena might think about the possession statistic (64 percent to 36 percent in favor of the United States), the USA looked not at all good against a not very good team.

    In fact, I am sugarcoating this -- that is the worst I've ever seen this U.S. team play. I am happy, unbelievably happy for this team, for everyone involved in soccer in the United States and for the world of football, which will benefit from the growth of soccer in the United States. But I am also disappointed in the team I find myself bragging about to the miserable foreign press. Tonight, the Americans looked like the team the rest of the world thinks it is -- defensively naïve, physically pushed around and both unimaginative and profligate in front of goal. Yes, the United States might have scored three rather than one, but by the same token, Poland might have scored five.

    Sergio Conceicao
    Sergio Conceicao, center, leaves the field in tears after Portugal's loss to South Korea.
    But that's not what's blown my mind -- all teams have bad nights (ask England about World Cup nightmares against Poland, circa 1973). What's blown my mind is the confluence of forces that have just combined to send the Americans into the last 16 to face their biggest rival, Mexico, a team they psychologically know they can beat, for a place in the World Cup quarterfinals. All Portugal needed was a draw, but two -- two -- expulsions later, it was left fighting a losing battle for their lives (after this World Cup, the U.S. team should really send the Argentinian referee responsible, Mr. Angel Sanchez, something extremely nice -- like Frankie Hejduk).

    And still, the United States only made it by one inch, maybe less. Such are the margins of this World Cup. Late in the second half, someone Portuguese, one of only nine left on the field, hit the inside -- the inside! -- of the post with a shot from 16 yards. When it didn't go in, he actually started crying. But that was not their only chance. The action flowed end-to-end, and both teams looked like they'd be scoring every time they entered the opposing box.

    In the end, though, tonight -- again, as was the case in its staggering loss to the United States in its opening game -- was just not Portugal's night. As Paulo Bento, their Sporting Lisbon midfielder, so poetically put it in the Mix Zone (interview area) after the game: "The tree was twisted from the roots; this match felt wrong from the beginning."

    This whole World Cup is twisted from its roots. But I find it glorious. I like trees like that.

    Dammit, my leg's just fallen asleep.

    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.