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When steroids aren't an issue

Osaka, Japan, 4 April 2005 | Sam Schechner, writing in Slate, poses the most tantalizing question in robot soccer: "Will a team of robots beat the World Cup champions—or at least the
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Sony AIBOs (Artificially Intelligent Robots) utilized in the "four-legged" division. Aibo is Japanese for companion.
best team in MLS—in our lifetime?" ("Attack of the Soccer Robots"). Each of five divisions in the robot competition has the same goal: developing a team of "fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world soccer champion team" by 2050. Numerous problems need to be solved in the meantime. First, the 'bots lack tactical nous, bunching up on the pitch "like middle-schoolers," Schechner writes. Second, they do not see well, although their sight has improved. Spectators in the past were banned from wearing orange shirts. The RoboCup U.S. Open takes place 7–10 May at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The world championships are 13–19 July in Osaka.

Stirring up frenzy before 'soccer war'

Saitama, Japan, 8 February 2005 | Emphasis before the World Cup qualifier tomorrow between North Korea and Japan has fallen on the background of hostilities and bitterness. Japan is said to be readying 3,400 security forces as some among the 150,000

Spirit of readiness: Japanese riot police in Saitama. (AP)
Pyongyang-supporting Korean residents of Japan prepare to show their support. These are descendants of 2.1 million brought to Japan as forced laborers during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. "In Japanese society we are suffering from invisible pressure and barriers," says Song Yun-bae, who works with other Koreans at a pachinko parlor in Tokyo. Japan, too, has its grievances, with the whereabouts of eight Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s still unknown.

Two members of the North Korean side, which last reached the World Cup finals in its scintillating run of 1966, play in the J-League: Ri Han-jae of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and An Yong-hak of Nagoya Grampus Eight. "I can't help but feel nervous," says An. This is North Korea's first attempt at qualification since 1994. "The government has paid deep attention to developing football in a systematic way," says a member of the country's physical culture and sports-guidance commission. (Update: The match ended peacefully, with Japan 2–1 victors.)

Catching Up, Part III: Europe
This might be called the "silly season" in football—the recently contested Swamp Soccer World Championships in Hyrynsalmi, Finland, perhaps the prime example—except that much of the competition is not silly at all. An event of global significance, the second Homeless World Cup, concluded today. Italy,

Mrs. Kushida and Yasuharu Kawarada from Big Issue Japan. (Copyright © 2004 Georg Lassacher)
organized by the MultiEtnica 2001 organization and the Terre di Mezzo street paper, defeated the Austrian representative, Team Afghan, 4–0. Team Afghan had reached the event after beating out 16 other Austrian contenders. All eight players are asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iran. Japan (street paper The Big Issue Japan), the tournament's first side from Asia, won the Fair Play Trophy. The eight men competing for Japan sell The Big Issue Japan on the streets of Osaka and Tokyo; they purchase the newspaper for ¥90 per copy and resell it for ¥200 (about $1.80). Team member Yasuharu Kawarada (pictured above) cites his greatest possession as a Hanshin Tigers cap and defines wealth as "being with Jesus Christ."

The third Homeless World Cup is scheduled next summer for New York, with the Ford Foundation providing much of the financial backing. The practical difficulties of organizing the event and of fielding a team are well-chronicled in the New York Daily News (Michael O'Keeffe, "The Game of Life," 11 April) and New York Press (Ron Grunberg, "Street Soccer," 23 June). Both articles discuss the bureaucratic tangles involved in compiling identity and travel documents. Grunberg, the New York team's coach, writes that

[e]ven after several months of planning and twice-weekly practices, after recruiting players at the food lines and in the shelters, with all the interest we'd stirred up—we had just a few bona fide candidates who could play, travel legally and pass the medical tests. But then three new players walked in: two hailing from Peru, the other from Haiti. Not only do they have their papers in order, they're naturals on the grass.

Other complications also crop up, as social worker Zmira Amrani told the Daily News:

"We had a player wind up in the hospital in Austria last year," she says, referring to a homeless New Yorker who came apart emotionally under the pressure of competition. "We want to make sure the players we take to Sweden don't have a history of mental health problems—or if they do, that they are taking their meds."

Renewal in spirit and body, though, has been a more common outcome. Twelve of last year's 141 players are now pursuing a career in football; others have gone back to school or found other jobs. Just competing is an emotional risk. David Tajmas, captain of the Sweden team, said "at first I never wanted to play in the team because I did not want to reveal my [addiction]. But this opportunity has rebuilt my self-confidence" (Simon Reeves, "Homeless WC Finals," footballculture.net).

Other significant football and sport gatherings that have already occurred or that will take place in Europe this summer include the EuroGames 2004 in Munich, a Click for EuroGames 2004 siteproject of the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF); the Global Games in Bollnäs, Sweden, organized by the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID); the Partially Sighted World Championships in Manchester, England, in December; and the Mondiali Antirazzisti, or Anti-racist World Cup, in Montecchio, Italy, organized by Football against Racism in Europe (FARE).