Tue, Jul 11, 2006 - Page 18 News List

World Cup: World Cup fever had Asians in its grip

AFP , HONG KONG

They may not yet have a team capable of winning the World Cup, but that didn't stop soccer-mad Asians getting into the swing of this year's tournament.

Although the yawning time difference with Berlin, where the final between France and Italy was held, forced Asians to watch live broadcasts at unearthly hours yesterday morning, millions of fans throughout the region still avidly tuned in on television.

They packed shopping malls, bars and anywhere else that a public screen could be erected not only for the final but for every match in the month-long championships.

In Australia, where almost 1 million people trace their ancestry back to Italy, tens of thousands of fans braved the winter chill to watch the game at huge outdoor screens in major cities.

Flares, fireworks and screams of joy erupted from an estimated 10,000 fans in Sydney's Italian heartland of Norton Street when Italy slotted home the winning penalty.

"It doesn't get any better than this," yelled Victor Arcuri atop a car painted in the red, white and green of the Italian flag.

He invited everyone back to his pizza shop, telling them: "Let's all call in sick today."

Of all the Asian teams in the month-long tournament, Australia went furthest, reaching the second round. It was only the second time the nation had qualified.

Japan and South Korea, joint hosts of the 2002 tournament, were eliminated in the first round.

Italy put Australia out of the World Cup with a 1-0 victory and Australian Prime Minister John Howard noted that the fact the Azzurri had gone on to win the tournament showed how well the Socceroos had performed.

"I congratulate Italy," he said.

"I'm sure there'll be a lot of Australians of Italian descent -- now that Australia's out of it -- their second choice would have been Italy and I'm sure they're very happy," Howard said.

Hong Kongers' love of soccer is evident from the popularity of European team shirts in the former British colony. During the World Cup, however, they took their devotion to another level, as hundreds of thousands gathered at public screenings of matches.

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