Sunday, June 19, 2005

Day Two of the Confederations Cup

Day Two of the Confederations Cup.
'There is still so much to do' says the cover of Germany's top selling daily at the previous night's shipping of three goals to Australia, despite the four scored in reply. Germany have belatedly discovered what the rest of us have known for some time: There has been a big levelling-up of world football standards and the dummies are fewer and further between.

Sat on the train from Hannover to Frankfurt and Franz Beckenbauer's mug stares back at me from the on board magazine. Why don't they just make him king of Germany?

Hannover's stadium is large and imposing but a bugger to get to, a good 15 minute walk from the nearest S-Bahn (tram stop) and poorly signposted. The walk was pretty though, through an atmospherically deserted fairground and fluffs of flying cottonwood romantically drifting through the summer evening air.

Another warm evening bodes well for next year but it won't be as sweltering as some recent World Cups such as Mexico 86, USA 94 or Korea/Japan 2002. The Europeans should have an advantage therefore and remember no South American team has ever won in this continent.

For some reason the Germans had all adopted Mexico as their team for the evening, painting their cheeks in the tricolore and chanting 'Me-HEE-Ko!' I did spy two locals bravely cheering for Japan but what the Nippon fans must have made of these gaijins' Chinese coolie hats...

Japan's 2002 World Cup team.


Sitting a few rows in front of me was Arsene Wenger, who coached in Japan before he came to Arsenal and who knows one day may return there, possibly as national team manager.

Given the friendly occasion and the country involved it was no surprise when a Mexican wave started, except that it took 42 minutes to get going.

More Mexicans than Japanese had made the trip although the latter outnumbered the former 10 to 1 in the press box. Nippon fans have yet to generate the noise their European or South American counterparts do but that is no bad thing. I have to say they are the most friendly and pleasant fans I have yet encountered (the worst would be Yugoslavia or Turkey) and have a healthy proportion of women amongst their ranks.

It is a real mistake to assume fans from a 'baby' footballing country like Japan, Australia or the USA are less knowledgeable than us Old Worlders. Quite the opposite in my experience - the need to hunt down information from beyond the major media sources hones their taste and scent for football knowledge.

As a journalist I love the ordeal of international tournament press conferences. I say ordeal because there are so many languages to translate. Last night we had Spanish, Portuguese, English, Japanese and German, rather like the street language spoken by Harrison Ford in Blade Runner.

I must say if there is one regret I have in this job it is that so many football journalists lack a sense of humour or proportion. You could not but raise at least a smile as one of the FIFA interpreters had a sneezing fit into the microphone during Zico's spiel and a Mexican hack asked a question in Spanish with the velocity of Roadrunner and the voice of Speedy Gonzales in one. One of the Japanese questions seemed to take half an hour to ask and ten seconds to translate, rather like the pretentious commercial director in 'Lost in Translation'.

As a consequence of FIFA's desire to simultaneously interpret, the time for questions is limited but both games I have attended have suspiciously included questions from what I think are FIFA plants, who ask the managers what they think of the host city, its people and the welcome they have been given. Nobody is going to offend all and sundry by saying, 'Well actually everyone is so rude around here and the food sucks!' so why prolong this eternal bliss view of football promulgated by the FIFA website and magazine? It is at odds with the reality as experienced by fans, players and owners alike so why bang on with this Disney-esque myth?

Germany however is a decent World Cup host although not everything is perfect. I have experienced bureaucratic and logistical problems and tonight had to ask five FIFA people where the media centre was before I found someone who did know.

My day ended with arriving at the hotel the Hannover tourist office had booked for me only to find the concierge closes at 6 and so I could not check in! I have never come across such a place. A German lady called Dagmar took pity on me and offered me her floor to sleep on but I saved her and my blushes by finding the first place I came to. "You have an expensive hobby going to football tournaments", a German tourist told me in Sweden in 1992 during the European Championships. He is still right.

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