By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2

Day 13: But lucky for some, especially Italy

June 13, Room 1206, The Osaka Hilton, 12:15 a.m.
I grab a beer out of the minibar and turn on ESPN. It's a bit like being at home, but this is ESPN Japan and that just makes it funnier. There's coverage of the pre-Game 4 NBA press conference, or maybe it's post-Game 3 -- my Japanese, so far limited to "there," "now" and "yes," is not helping me much. Kobe's speaking, but you don't hear him; it's a superb Japanese announcer dubbing him into Japanese (I saw some very bad ones on "Friends" the other night, Chandler sounding retarded and on crack). Then Byron Scott appears, the announcer makes a subtle shift in his intonation, a little more articulate, up a semi-tone, but still matching those lips pretty nicely. Then it's Shaq's turn, and the announcer drops his voice three octaves to a barely audible grunt, and bizarrely, I understand every word.

Next up, a sports news report. I select "Bilingual" on my remote, and the dubbing track disappears. I don't recognize the U.S. anchors, but they piss me off pretty quickly with their tiresome, unoriginal and, frankly, played out, snarky attitude toward the World Cup. I paraphrase here, but this is basically accurate. They begrudgingly, and with all the enthusiasm, respect and, dare I say, talent of ninth graders reading Shakespeare aloud in English class for the first time, show a couple of World Cup highlights (including the two mind-blowing Danish goals that eliminated defending champions France). They then proceed to report in the staggering ratings success of the USA's vital first-round game with South Korea, screened at 2.30 a.m. ET on Monday. The game was "voluntarily" watched by (something like) 1.36 million households, one of them reports, "as opposed to those who were conscripted and forced to watch by their boss." The other one points at him and winks. Ha, ha. Poor you, forced to watch sports and report on it for a living. You truly have our sympathy.

And by the way, have you been known to fly the U.S. flag outside your house? Still have one of those little ones for your car? I'm sure you hold your heart when you sing the national anthem. You're a hypocrite.

Monday's U.S. game was one of the rare times in your lifetime your country will play such an important, landmark game of anything, laden with political, social and sporting overtones, in such a hostile environment. The U.S. players deserve your respect, as do the few hundred members of Uncle Sam's Army who've traveled thousands of miles to support them in person, not to mention those 1.36 million who "voluntarily" stayed up and watched. Patriotism is all about voluntary, mate; when you're forced into it it's totalitarianism; when you just do it because everyone else is doing it, it's spineless.

Vending machine
Michael Davies
Automatic for the peopls: Everything tastes better out of a vending machine.

And don't give me that crap about soccer being un-American. It's been in your country much longer than basketball and, in fact, the United States was one of the first to have professionals playing in organized soccer leagues. Moreover, the very origins of American football are tied up within American "other" football. When your football celebrated it's centennial in 1969 (or thereabouts, I don't carry my research), the game it celebrated, played between Princeton and Rutgers, was more like my game than yours -- played with a round ball, the object of the game to score goals by sticking the ball between two posts, and there was absolutely no carrying the ball and running with it.

Christ, I must stop ranting. I'm hungry.

I get into bed and watch something called "Matthew's Best Hit TV. I don't understand a word of it but I fall asleep dreaming of making millions importing it into the United States.

Central Osaka, 10:30 a.m.
As a member of the international media, I have been cordially invited to experience Bunraku, apparently "one of Japan's proudest cultural contributions to the world. It evolved as a fusion of puppet theater performed on the street and storytelling set to music in the late 17th century and the National Bunraku Theater is about to stage a special sold-out performance."

But I'm not there. I'm not good with puppets. Except the ones on "Crank Yankers," and I really doubt this is anything like that.

I head off instead to investigate Osakan culture at Starbucks and, overcome by a sudden and overwhelming desire to purchase camping attire, head upstairs to L.L. Bean. Also stop at the Dee Do, like a Circuit City, and buy a personal voice recorder.

Hovercraft
Michael Davies
Good vibrations: Time to catch a hovercraft in the middle of nowhere.

Walking around Osaka, 12:15 p.m.
Quick note: "Osakans are the most miserable-looking human beings on Earth. The Japanese economy might be in recession, but cheer up, fellas. Your football team is quite useful."

The Automatic Café, 1:10 p.m.
Another quick note: Do you like vending machines? I love them. Everything tastes better out of a vending machine. The whole transaction is just so damn enjoyable, like winning something at the fair. You can get everything from vending machines here, and they're everywhere you turn. They look superb, Warholian. I want one. Right now I'm in an automatic café, it's a whole café where everything is served out of vending machines. I'm in heaven, but the crowd in here is depressed and tired. Getting me down. I'm leaving for the airport.

Seat 14B, ANA flight 87 to Oita, 3:15 p.m.
Quick note 3: (Very quiet) I'm sitting on the plane just in front of John Motson. Americans won't understand that, but he's the best football announcer in the world in my view, and excellent on FIFA 2001 for Playstation 2.

Quick Note 4: Must buy new World Cup Edition of FIFA 2002 and replay every game.

Somewhere in the middle of Beppu Bay, Kyushu, 4:45 p.m.
I am riding in a hovercraft. Yes, a hovercraft. It's a 20-mile, 25-minute ride on an inflatable "skirt" over the bay from Oita airport to downtown. Oita, is, apparently, in the middle of nowhere, It does not even warrant a mention in the index of my comprehensive 618-page Fodor's guide to Japan. Why are they holding a World Cup game here?

Mexican fans
Gang green: Loud and proud Mexican fans cheer their team to the second round.

In the back of a taxi, 6:15 p.m.
I have been in this car for more than an hour. They say that Japanese civilization actually started in this region, but by the looks of it, it left pretty bloody sharpish. This stadium is miles away from anything. We have finally reached it, but it is on top of a hill, hidden by towering fortress walls, and guarded by a 20-foot security fence. What a surprise -- nobody knows where the media entrance is. No I'm not getting out here. Drive, drive on, my man! Kita! That's my new word, it means north.

The Media Tribune, Oita "Big Eye" Stadium, 8:25 a.m.
Well, this place might be in the middle of nowhere, but it's a magnificent football park -- the eye almost entirely closed by the lid, if you can picture it, and noisy as hell. Just how I like it. What is it about fans in green, anyway? The Irish, the Nigerians and now the Mexicans. Superb, they sing their national anthem beautifully, which is more than I can say for the Italian fans who outnumber the Mexicans about 2 to 1 (hard to tell though, because the Japanese love the Italian team and especially the Fabio look-alike, Francesco Totti). I'm not sure I've ever heard the Italian national anthem before -- it's crap. Far too fast, and requires an opera singer's range. Most of the Italians don't even bother singing.

I have no rooting interest in this game whatsoever, other than the fact I suspect my father is really Rossi the Ice Cream Man, who used to swing around the neighborhood when I was a child playing the theme to "The Third Man" over his VW Bus speaker. He always treated me differently than the other children, a knowing wink, an extra sprinkle, incorrect change. That would not explain, however, how much I look and sometimes act like the man who (when forced) actually claims to be my father.

It does occur to me though that one of these teams will probably end up playing the United States in the (fingers crossed for tomorrow) last 16.

The Media Tribune, Observer Seats, halftime, Mexico 1, Italy 0, 9:20 p.m.
They say Italy's only a country when they're playing football, which might explain how poorly they sing the national anthem but not how poorly they're playing football. Gerardo Torrado is marking Totti out of the game. I'm not sure that will come across on television, but the Mexican No. 6 is having a stonking game. Giovanni Trapattoni, the Italian coach, is extremely entertaining. He crosses his arms holding one hand under his chin, as if contemplating philosophy, as he studies his 4-3-3. Every now and then, he turns and yells at his bench, or one of his assistant managers. He is a complete egomaniac -- every errant pass, every missed tackle, every perceived bad call by the referee or linesman is greeted with disbelief. Trapattoni's perfect football match no doubt would feature two teams of Giovanni Trapattonis, refereed by Trapattonis playing against The Washington Generals.

Francesco Totti, Gerardo Torrado
Gerardo Torrado marks Francesco Totti, left. out of the game to fix his hair.

The Media Tribune, Italy 1, Mexico 1, 9:25 p.m.
I take it back, Trapattoni's a genius. He subs Totti (having a bad, bad hair day in the humidity of Kyushu's rainy season) for the diminutive Del Piero 77 minutes into the game and, five minutes before full time, the Juventus forward nips in and scores.

Fortunately, extremely fortunately for Italy, Croatia somehow manages not to beat Ecuador (according to Taki ,who is at that game working for ESPN, and calls me as soon as it's done, he's not sure Croatia really tried). It seems hard to believe. Oh, Croatia. Yes, I understand. Italy qualifies with 4 points. Not a lot. But I like it.

Or do I? If the United States wins its group, it now plays Italy; if it finishes second (less likely, it seems to me), it plays Mexico. Psychologically, I think the Americans would rather play Mexico, but as Rob Stone wrote Wednesday on ESPN.com, they absolutely cannot play for a draw. Que sera sera. In this World Cup, that might be the only thing we can all agree on.

Sentences I never thought I'd write:

I must run now, I've got to catch a hovercraft.

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.


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