Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

World Cup brings out worst in Dachshund Ron

by Alastair Himmer

So far so weird, then. France on the brink of elimination, England beating Argentina 1-0 and Rivaldo being fined for cheating were just some of the biggest headlines to come out of the first week and a bit of the World Cup.

Cohosts Japan and South Korea, Senegal, Ireland and even Germany, who not so long ago everyone thought was Scotland in disguise, have also done their bit in a ripsnorter of a first round so far.

But to France. Really, does anybody have any sympathy for the World Cup holders? I mean, with or without Zinedine Zidane you would have bet your mortgage on France to beat Senegal in the opening game in Seoul on May 31.

But the body language of the French said simply, “Been here, done this. Pass me my slippers, mon vieux.” Result, 1-0 Senegal and deservedly so. This was followed by a 0-0 draw with Uruguay in which France played with the urgency of Tottenham Hotspur on the last day of the English season. The French could be back in Paris by Wednesday at this rate. Come on you Danes!

As for little England, cliches fail me. Oh, go on then. Four years of hurt came to a screeching halt in Sapporo for England when David Beckham kept his nerve to fire home that penalty just before halftime.

Out rolled the “Captain Marvel” headlines, hitherto used exclusively to describe former England captain Bryan Robson, who in fact did very little marvelous and just got injured a lot.

“There were some antics going on when we got the penalty and there were different flashbacks from four years ago. It was an emotional moment for me,” said Beckham after erasing the memory of his red card during the epic defeat to Argentina on penalties in 1998.

Yes, revenge for Beckham and damning proof, if ever it was needed, that the Argies “don’t like it up ’em.” Friday was a good night.

Of course, it could still go horribly wrong for England against Nigeria on Wednesday but thankfully there is no Phil Neville in the squad this time. How many times have you heard the phrase “Remember, England only needs to avoid defeat to go through?” I will be watching from behind the sofa.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. What was Rivaldo thinking, pretending to have been hit in the face by the ball when it hit him around the knees? More to the point, did he forget he was on the telly?

Turkey midfielder Hakan Unsal was sent off after kicking the ball at Rivaldo, who went down clutching his face as if he had just been smacked by Lennox Lewis.

So what does FIFA do? Slaps him on the wrist and tells him not to do it again, basically. This, you will recall, after promising to clamp down on “simulation,” or play-acting, during the World Cup.

“He may be sanctioned strongly if he continues to behave in this manner,” FIFA communications director Keith Cooper told a news conference. Rivaldo must be quaking in his boots.

FIFA has missed an open goal. Here was a golden opportunity to send a clear message to all players and stamp out this kind of cheating during the World Cup.

But instead of banning Rivaldo for one match, FIFA fined him the princely sum of $6,390. What kind of message has that sent, especially when you consider Rivaldo could earn 10 times that amount for opening a supermarket?

* * * A supermarket is something that the sleepy town of Mori desperately needs. Mori, where the Japan Football Association (JFA) media center is located, is the kind of place where you could quite easily lose the will to live.

But I am made of sterner stuff and in between listening to frogs croaking and discussing the suicide rate of Mori, I have been reaping the benefits of covering the Japan team during this World Cup.

On the first day, journalists discovered a pile of toilet rolls on a table in the middle of the press room with the attached message: “Please help yourselves.”

Asked about this generous freebie, a JFA spokesman insisted there was no deep significance and informed awestruck journalists that Shizuoka Prefecture was famous for toilet paper. I thought it was tea and tangerines, but you live and learn.

Things got more surreal on Day Two when there were cobs of corn stacked up to the ceiling for our consumption.

Joy soon turned to irritation, however, as the green tarpaulin covering the floor of the crumbling gymnasium we spend our days in became unbearably sticky to walk on. The cockroaches seemed happy enough, though.

So off I toddled to my hotel for a shower, only to discover when I checked in that I was staying at the Japanese version of the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” Showering required nerves of steel.

Japan players, training just down the road at Iwata Stadium, apparently refuse to stay at the Grand Hotel because they are afraid of things that go bump in the night. And they do.

As a result, I am now sitting in my Y-fronts writing this at 4 a.m. and getting ever more twitchy as the fridge in my room keeps gurgling and muttering, “Behind you, baldy. Behind you.”

Still, it is not all doom and gloom covering Japan. The adventures of Ron the dachshund, an adorable mutt that trots around the press center wearing a tiny No. 12 Japan shirt trying to “make friends” with your leg as you work keeps everyone amused.

I might be going stir crazy in Mori but so far I have resisted the advances of Ron. For how long though? It is that kind of place. It is that kind of World Cup.

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