Even Americans can appreciate Asian soccer scene
October 21, 2007
We know, we know — soccer will probably never catch fire in the United States.
It’s too low-scoring, which to Americans translates to boring. And though our American sensibilities can embrace pet rocks and MC Hammer pants, we will never have an affinity for Pelé, Beckham or any other corner-kick crusader who believes they can successfully graft soccer into our culture.
But hey, we’re not living in the States. Let down that red, white and blue guard for a moment and you too can have some fun at some of the soccer matches in South Korea and Japan.
If you’re embarrassed to tell your neighbor on base that you’re going to watch “that boring sport,” tell him you’re taking the family to a night of Japanese monster truck demolition.
A couple of us “Yanks” recently caught some action at Yokohoma’s Nissan Stadium, and a good time was had by everyone — even my friend Chris, a self-professing soccer hater.
We took a train to watch the home-team Yokohama Marinos square off against the well-known FC Barcelona soccer club in a “friendly.” Fans gathered to watch the world’s most popular athletes. Ronaldinho, a striker from Brazil who played that night, is recognized by various celebrity pundits as the world’s most famous athlete. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re probably an American.
“I came to watch Ronaldinho,” said Mariko Hashimura. “He is famous and he is cool.”
Hashimura’s friend Risa said another reason to like soccer is the excitement in the stands. “I love the atmosphere. It’s so much fun,” she said.
Big drum beats and chants came from painted faces waving banners that were part of that atmosphere supporting the home-team Marinos. That in itself was entertainment.
I was also impressed that two hours before game time these fans, mostly Japanese, began filling the seats in droves. Their desire to show up early and root for their favorite players even during warm-ups was a nice change of pace from the professional sporting events I am accustomed to attending in the States.
Then again, maybe they were just as eager as we were to munch on the delicious stadium eats before food lines extended to Tokyo. I knew Chris was.
My game plan to maximize grubbing on stadium food has been to eat as little as possible before the game, then attack those franks like a contestant at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating challenge. It’s a pre-game ritual that should transcend all cultures. Knowing that my stomach would take 20 minutes to tell my brain that it’s full gave me a great window of opportunity.
There were reservations, however, about whether or not Japanese vendors served hot dogs. Fears were quickly put to ease once we made eye contact with the familiar red meat, or whatever it’s made of.
For American cuisine enthusiasts, there is good news. Yokohama Dogs, which are sausages wrapped in tortillas, go for $3; corn dogs, $2.50; and ham- and-cheese hot pockets also cost about $2.50. I also consumed fried potatoes on a skewer separated by bacon. I didn’t catch the name, but they were absolutely delicious.
Japanese fare included takoyaki, a popular Japanese dumpling made of batter, diced octopus, and tempura scraps. These may sound gross to some, but if you’ve tried sushi and didn’t die, you’ll love takoyaki.
There were also dragon balls — rounded cheese balls flavored like curry — and, of course, gyoza. We also spotted soba and a platter of rice balls with chicken. None of the Japanese food was more than $4, and though prices fluctuate as does dollar power, we left convinced that the food would taste good no matter what the exchange rate.
In fact, these prices were so easy to swallow you didn’t need beverages to wash them down. If you wanted drinks, sodas sold for about $2, while Kirin beers went for $6. Compare that to the $6 sausage and $7.50 beers at a DC United Major League Soccer game.
By the time we rolled ourselves back into our seats, the game had begun. I soon concluded that soccer is a better sport to watch when you see it live. The open field demands strategy and positioning, and the players are always in motion.
“All players are running around for the whole (game),” said soccer enthusiast Mitsuru Nakao, who disagreed with the American notion that low-scoring means very boring. “There are too many players not doing anything but just standing around in baseball.”
Yuya Nakano, who became a soccer fan after the 2002 World Cup, agreed with that sentiment, saying that the goals may be few, but there is “excitement in every goal.”
Additionally, the contest was more physical than I ever imagined. Some of these guys are good actors (some are not) and will take dives in hopes of drawing a yellow card. It’s pretty funny and also a little annoying.
But there is also undeniable pain that gets dished — like the Marinos’ striker who was kicked in the face with pointy spikes after barely missing a goal. Ouch!
So yes, there is action, and great food, a fun atmosphere, and even some good ol’ violence. You see, there’s plenty to enjoy at a soccer match.
As an American, you may still detest the final outcome — the game we saw was a 1-0 pitcher’s duel won by Barcelona — but you will definitely have fun getting into the surroundings. It beats sitting on base, or even going to your traditional Japanese monster truck demolition.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusomoto contributed to this report.