Japan warms to global game

Football: A team of teen-agers from Japan highlights the country's growing interest in the sport.

January 25, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The first real football action of Super Bowl week didn't draw much of a crowd. Only a few hundred fans showed up at Clearwater High School yesterday afternoon to watch Japan play Canada in the opening game of Global Jr. Championship V - an international teen-age tournament that has become an annual part of the NFL's championship celebration.

It is a goodwill event aimed at bringing together young players (most are 18 or 19 years old) from various parts of the world to compete in the spirit of friendship and promote American-style football. Nobody expected a sellout.

Canada won the event last year in Atlanta, but it's not as if there is no football tradition north of the border. They have been playing professional football in Canada for more than 50 years. For a time, there was even a team in the remote southern province of Maryland.

The sport also has taken hold in Europe, where NFL Europe and the European Federation of American Football organized a representative team to face the American entry in yesterday's other semifinal game.

But Japan? Does anyone really play football in Japan?

"We have been playing football for 65 years," said Tak Makita, the author of seven books about American football in Japan. "We just don't have a pyramid system [where large numbers of high school players compete for college scholarships]. Most players begin playing in college."

Of course, everybody knows about Japan's long romance with baseball, which is - far and away - the country's most popular participation sport. And everybody knows that sumo wrestling maintains a prominent place in Japanese culture. But American football has grown in popularity, and there is substantial interest in the Super Bowl.

Makita is one of the sport's greatest promoters - something of a Japanese John Steadman. He played college football in Japan in the 1950s and has been covering it for various Japanese publications ever since.

"It's a little like the Ivy League," he said. "There are no scholarships whatsoever. Not all of the first-year players are 18 years old, because the college entrance examinations are very difficult."

That emphasis on academics figures to keep Japan from ever becoming a football power, but what the Japanese players lacked in experience and athletic prowess in yesterday's semifinal game, they made up for with enthusiasm and aggressiveness.

They were undersized and seemingly overmatched by the Canadian team, but they got on the scoreboard in exciting fashion when defensive back Yasuki Miyazaki picked up a blocked extra-point attempt and raced the length of the field for two points. The Japan defense also staged a spirited goal-line stand in the first quarter to keep the game from getting out of hand.

For football to become a major sport, however, would require a much greater emphasis at the pre-teen and high-school levels, something Makita said won't come to pass any time soon.

"Japan is in [transition]," he said. "The family structure is changing. People are having fewer children, and mothers don't like their sons to play a dangerous sport, especially if there is only one son. Fathers, after the recession there, don't want to buy the equipment, which has to be imported from the United States and is very expensive."

Sandy art

Meanwhile, at nearby Sand Key Beach, a larger crowd was gathering to witness Clearwater's other major contribution to the Super Bowl celebration. The city's tourist bureau commissioned the construction of a huge helmet-shaped sand structure to serve as the centerpiece of its football-related festivities and christened it last night with a dazzling laser and fireworks show.

The structure - which bore lighted Ravens and Giants emblems - was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest and tallest sand monument devoted to a sports theme. It was surrounded by smaller helmets representing the other 29 NFL teams.

"Having the Super Bowl gives you the chance to showcase your community," said tourism official Carole Ketterhagen. "We know that it has a Tampa dateline. We just thought about what we could do to showcase our beaches and thought there was no better way than a record-breaking sand sculpture."

Noble causes

Though the Super Bowl might represent the height of commercialism, it does have a softer side. Super Bowl week is the ultimate sponsor convention, but the NFL and several of its corporate sponsors also use it as a platform for charitable endeavors.

Tuesday, Super Bowl heroes Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis teamed up with the Campbell's Soup Co. to highlight their "Tackling Hunger" program - a season-long campaign in which 6 million cans of soup were donated to food banks around the nation.

And at yesterday's "Souper Bowl of Caring" news conference, Pastor Brad Smith outlined the annual nationwide effort to raise money for hunger relief on Super Bowl Sunday.

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