06/13/2006, 00.00
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World Cup in Asia amidst cheering monks, bookmakers under arrest and prizes worth a king's ransom

In Beijing fans cheer and drink into the wee hours of the night, Iran invites all its champions to Germany and, lo and behold, North Korean TV might even broadcast some matches.

Rome (AsiaNews) – What do Cambodian Buddhist monks, overindulging Chinese fans, prize-pledging Saudis, TV-starved Indonesians and even North Korean broadcasters have in common?  They all suffer from football (or soccer) fever.  And so does the rest of Asia.

Only four Asian countries— Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea—made it to Germany but the whole continent is glued to the TV screen . . . passionately. Perhaps too passionately.

In China thousands have come down with football fever, invading bars and open spaces to watch matches broadcast in the middle of the night because of the six hours time difference with Germany.

As fans in Beijing camp out in parks with flags and banners, health professionals are warning against alcohol abuse after a 24-year-old man in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, dropped dead from heart failure two hours after the inaugural match won by Germany. According to police, he had been drinking to excess.

So dangerous is the 'disease' that even otherwise impassive Buddhist monks might fall prey. Phnom Penh's Buddhist Patriarch Non Nget has warned novices not to watch the games but if they do, to avoid shouting or cheering.

"It is very difficult to ban them because new technology means the games can be aired live and seen everywhere," he said. However, "they may watch, but must be calm."

In Indonesia the problem is different. Here the sound of grumbling is getting louder match after match because, although some viewers have no problem in watching the event, others are left with the prospect of paying dearly to watch the jousting of Ronaldinho and company. In the country's thousands of islands only SCTV is broadcasting the World Cup but whilst it is free in the cities, Indonesia's 70-80 million rural residents have to spend around a hundred dollars US for an antenna and a decoder, a hefty sum for the average farmer.

Still this World Cup might even be able to pierce the hitherto impenetrable wall around North Korea. South Korea has started to provide North Korea with television broadcasts of the World Cup. "We started relaying World Cup TV broadcasts through satellite," Yang Chang-seok, a South Korea Unification Ministry spokesman said yesterday. "But I don't think the North has started airing them yet." The move follows the North's request that South Korea relay World Cup broadcasts so that its people can watch the tournament.

In 2002, when the World Cup was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, the communist North's television broadcasts consisted of some edited, delayed replays of matches.

Football fever and gambling have landed two Americans of Vietnamese origin—Thai Dac Phat, 39, and Ha Lai Ninh, 38—in jail. The two returned to Vietnam only recently to visit relatives, but began running a betting ring from a hotel in the southern province of Can Tho when the World Cup kicked off in Germany. Two other Vietnamese men were involved. Police confiscated US$ 5,117. Under Vietnamese law betting is illegal except on the national lottery; those charged now risk seven years of jail time.

Countries with teams in Germany are trying everything to encourage their players. Iran's Sport Administration has invited all of Iran's eminent national champions to take part in the Germany 2006 World Cup.

Holder of two weight lifting Olympic Games gold medals and record holder in the super heavy weight category, Hussein Rezazadeh is the country's best known athlete. In late May he said he would love to take part and cheer Iran's team, but he first had to see whether he is able to find a suitable place to carryout his trainings.

Today in Tehran news reports indicate that Iran's national team midfielder and Bundesliga player Ali Karimi is atop nominees to receive the FIFA Golden Shoe during the ongoing German World Cup, according the official FIFA website. The result of the latest poll on the matter shows Karimi with 55 per cent of the votes compared to 16 per cent for Brazil's star midfielder Ronaldinho.

Also front page news is Ali Karimi's nagging ankle injury made worse by a kick he received In Iran's 3-1 loss against Mexico.

In Saudi Arabia, Prince Sultan, head of the Saudi Soccer Federation, promised the team 600,000 riyals or US$ 160,000 to each player if they make it through to the second 16-team round. Players would get 100,000 riyals (just over US$ 25,000) for each match they win and an additional 300,000 riyals if they get through Group H, which includes Spain, Tunisia and Ukraine.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”