Before the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, which starts in less than two months, the soccer competition will already be under way, kicking off two days earlier, on July 25.
I covered the crucial draw for group placements on April 24, which could go a long way to determining the early fortunes for both the Japanese men's and women's Olympic teams.
The venue for the draw was Wembley Stadium, located in the northwestern part of London. The stadium, often described as the home of soccer, was built in 1923. After five years of being rebuilt from 2002 after the original stadium was demolished, it has become a state-of-the-art, 90,000-seat facility.
Wembley is owned by the governing body of English soccer, the Football Association. The final game of the FA Cup, the oldest cup competition of the sport, takes place here every year.
Back in the 1966 World Cup in England, the host nation, with Bobby Charlton as its standout player, beat West Germany 4-2 in the final at the stadium, bringing about jubilation.
In the draw on April 24, Gary Lineker, a former national squad member of England who once played for the Nagoya Grampus of the J.League as well, served as the master of ceremony.
"Welcome to Wembley," he said, and went on to say the new stadium, which opened in 2007, is more than 130 meters high, more than four times the height of the previous one, and about twice as tall as Peter Crouch, referring to the 198-cm tall forward of England's national squad.
Lineker eased the tense atmosphere in the hall with his quip. Then, it was onto the draw.
Takashi Sekizuka, manager of the Japanese men's team, and Norio Sasaki, the women's team manager, were present. Seeing the outcome, I felt Japan had a lucky draw.
The men's team was put into Group D, along with Spain, Honduras and Morocco. The women will play Canada, Sweden and South Africa in Group F. Each team that has earned an Olympic ticket is strong, of course, but those groupings are not bad for Japan.
Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, the former forward of Brazil's national team and known simply as Ronaldo, was among the people who mixed the capsules containing the names of the nations in a glass bowl and then picked them one by one. I said a silent "thanks" to them for the outcomes being favorable to Japan.
"I think those were good," Hiromi Hara, technical director at the Japan Football Association, reaffirmed soon after the draw.
Meanwhile, Stuart Pearce, who leads the Great Britain men's Olympic team, looked unhappy. His squad will face Senegal, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay in Group A. "Uruguay will be tough but I wouldn't dismiss anyone," he said.
Only players aged 23 or younger are basically allowed to play in men's soccer in the Olympics, but each team can include up to three over-age players among its 18 members.
Speculation is flying that Uruguay will tap Luis Suarez as an over-age player. He now plays for Liverpool in the English Premier League. A Uruguay with Suarez, who led his country to the semifinals in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, would be more powerful.
The United Kingdom will send its men's soccer team to the Olympics for the first time in 52 years since the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. On the women's side, this will be the United Kingdom's first time.
There's a reason. Each of the soccer associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which make up the United Kingdom, has its own long history and a strong sense of being independent. These associations form their own teams for the World Cup, but the International Olympic Committee only allows a U.K. team. The three associations other than the English body had been concerned that a U.K. team in the Olympics will lead to the loss of their independence in the World Cup and other events. An agreement had thus long failed to be reached.
But this time is different: the Olympics will be held in Britain. The associations have managed to form one team, with the British Olympic Association, the U.K.'s national Olympic committee, acting as a go-between.
Eighty players are said to be on manager Pearce's list of candidates for his squad. The candidates certainly include players of the three regions other than England.
"The squad may not reflect every home nation and celebrity, but they will be the best 18 players who have the best opportunity to deliver a gold (medal)," Pearce said. "That's my only criteria."
As a result, the squad could almost completely be made up of English players. If so, a fresh controversy could arise.
And the 80 players include a big name in the world: David Beckham, the former captain of the English national team, who turned 37 in May. The London event would be the first Olympics for the English hero, who has appeared in three World Cups.
Pearce said he would set out on a tour to watch Beckham, who now plays in the United States. The manager will likely pick the veteran, who is eager to play for the United Kingdom. He has played on Wembley's pitch as a member of the English national squad. I'm looking forward to seeing him in the Olympics.
Soccer is not the only sport that has a long history in Wembley. The old stadium was the main venue for the previous London Olympics in 1948.
Emil Zatopek, a Czechoslovakian long-distance runner nicknamed "the human locomotive," also ran on Wembley's track.
Some Japanese know his name because of Japanese professional baseball pitcher Minoru Murayama, who played for the Hanshin Tigers decades ago. His pitching using his body to its fullest was called the "Zatopek style."
Japan and Germany were not invited to participate in the 1948 London Olympics, which was held just a few years after the end of World War II. I hear the Games encouraged people in Europe, who were stricken by the war.
Sixty-four years on, Wembley is one of the six soccer venues for the 2012 Olympics. Japanese players in blue uniforms--if they advance to the final game--will certainly be on the pitch of Wembley, also dubbed the "Venue of Legends." The women's final takes place on Aug. 9, followed by the men's final two days later. I hope by the end, Japanese players will hold a place in the pages of Wembley's history, too.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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