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Festival raises interest in American football ahead of 2007 World Cup

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Baseball, soccer, basketball . . . and next up, football.

News photo Kids enjoy themselves at the NFL American Football Festival at Kawasaki Stadium last

If not rapidly, the popularity of American football has been growing in recognition, especially among children and adolescents.

Japan will host American football’s World Cup next year, and football officials are trying to raise interest in the sport.

On Saturday and Sunday, kickoff events for the World Cup, dubbed as “NFL American Football Festival,” were held at Kawasaki Stadium, and it gave a lot of people a taste for the sport.

The main attraction was a flag football tournament that determined Japan’s representative for the 2006 NFL Flag Football World Championship, which will be held Aug. 22-26 in Cologne, Germany.

In Sunday’s final, the Fujitsu Junior Frontiers won the youth tournament, for players born between Sept. 1, 1991 and Dec. 31, 1994, and earned their berth to the world tourney.

GRASSROOTS DEVELOPMENT: The event organizer also presented to football fans and kids “NFL Experience,” a virtual park where children can literally experience how it feels to play the sport by throwing and kicking the ball, running through tackling dummies, and so on.

NFL Japan, the league’s representative company here, has been trying to spread flag football via a “flag football school program,” especially geared toward domestic elementary and junior high school students.

When the program started in 1998, 40 schools and 4,500 students were involved. But that figured has steadily risen. Last year, it increased to 2,362 schools and some 280,000 students.

In addition, a popular cartoon, “Eyeshield 21,” has helped raise football’s popularity among Japanese youth.

But back to the weekend extravaganza.

“My elder sister was playing (flag football), and my father asked me, ‘You want to play, too?’ So I played once and fell in love with it,” said smiling Eichi Atsumi, an 8-year-old who plays for the Fujitsu Frontiers of the X League, a team comprised of lower-grades elementary school students. Atsumi’s teammate and friend Junpei Dobashi, also 8, spent about five years in Oregon. So football is a familiar sport to him.

Dobashi, a fan of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, foresees his future in football.

Asked if he wants to come to watch next year’s World Cup, he immediately said, “If I have a chance, sure.”

Kenichi Nishimura, a company employee, brought his 6-year-old son, Yuki, and his wife, Machiko, to the event on Saturday. Nishimura himself used to be a football player at a corporate league and wanted to teach his son how enjoyable the sport is.

Nishimura dressed little Yuki, a kindergartener, in a No. 22 Dallas Cowboys jersey, popularized by one of the league’s all-time greats, Emmitt Smith. The reason? Nishimura hopes Yuki follows in his gridiron footsteps.

“He has yet to understand what football is, though,” Nishimura, a former running back, said with a laugh.

OLD-FASHIONED FOOTBALL: The World Cup, officialy known as the 3rd IFAF World Championships 2007, will be held at Kawasaki Stadium and Todoroki Athletic Stadium (home of the J. League’s Kawasaki Frontale), both in Kawasaki City next July. This is a traditional American football tournament — pads, tackling and four downs are, of course, trademarks.

Kawasaki Stadium was formerly the home field for two Tokyo-area professional baseball teams, the Taiyo Whales (predecessor of the Yokohama BayStars) and the Lotte Orions (now known as the Chiba Lotte Marines).

But when the Orions moved to Chiba, its role as a baseball ground was virtually over. The final pro game at Kawasaki Stadium was played in 1992, although amateur contests are still held there.

It is more of a football stadium now. An artificial turf that feels like natural grass was installed in 2004 so players do not get hurt in a football game that contains a lot of hard hits.

Also, in preparation for next year’s world championships, about 1,000 seats will be added to the stadium, starting this month.

The World Cup is held once every four years. The 2007 tournament will feature six countries, including the United States which did not participate in the past two tournaments. Japan is the two-time defending champion.