FIRST PUBLISHED: Sport First newspaper, June 9, 2002
By Chris Hunt


Anyone speak the international language of football? Forget the translators, here in the heart of Tokyo, fans of all nations have spent the last week abandoning their phrasebooks in favour of the one truly universal language. It’s the language of the handshake and the backslap, of the embrace and the indecipherable chant. Bump into a crowd of Mexicans in central Shinjuku and you may not always understand what they’re singing, but you’ll know exactly what they’re saying.


For those of us based in Tokyo for the tournament – as so many of the travelling fans are – the opening game was a television occasion best enjoyed in the company of the like-minded. In Tokyo that means Roppongi, an area of the city alive with westerners at night. Without a participating stadium itself – although Saitama and Yokohama are within very easy reach – Tokyo was in danger of losing the vibrant spirit that made a stay in Paris feel so exciting four years ago, but Roppongi has given this sprawling city its World Cup heart, a place for fans of all nations to meet.


The shock defeat of the French in the opening game was cheered in every bar in Roppongi and gave fans a reason to dance and sing and drink throughout the night – or at least until the first Metro started running again at 6am. Whatever colours you were wearing, on the streets of Tokyo the feeling was the same: a win for Senegal was a win for football!


With a World Cup split between two countries, Tokyo has so far been robbed of the colour of the Brazilians and French, but the large number of travelling English, Irish and Swedes has given this city its passion to party. And while English spirits may have been rocked temporarily by the tensions of the last 45 minutes of their opening game, the Irish have remained upbeat throughout.


Travelling with the Irish to the Kashima Soccer Stadium in Ibaraki for their game with Germany was an experience in itself. For two and a quarter hours, on a slow local train with barely room enough to stand comfortably, the fans patiently waited for their big moment. The songs were passionately sung – a chorus of Mollie Malone, followed by Dirty Old Town and The Irish Rovers, all punctuated by recurring renditions of their tour anthem, Come On You Boys In Green. I made the mistake of describing the hot and sweaty journey as ‘the train from hell’, but I was soon put straight by one St Patricks fan. “A point of information,” he laughed. “This is not a train of hell, this is quite an enjoyable train ride. For those of us who don’t have the pleasure of a fine train infrastructure in our home lands, the pleasure of travelling for two hours in a crowded, sweaty train with a beer in our hands is a very enjoyable experience.”


At the match itself, the crowd were rewarded for their patience with a spirited fightback by their team – and on a night that these fans will remember for ever, the only unanswered question remained ‘where are all the Germans?’, the Irish outnumbering their rivals by at least five to one.


At street level, the pace of this World Cup is being dictated by the cultural differences. There are no European-style town squares to provide a focal point on matchdays, and there are few large bars in which to gather. In Roppongoi, western pubs like the Sports Café and The Frog And Toad might be doing a roaring trade through the tournament, but the further you travel from Tokyo, the more limited are your options.


In Osaka – Japan’s second city – there are no bars with a capacity of more than 50; and in Saporro, on the eve of the tournament’s most eagerly awaited game, the England v Argentina clash, the city was alive with thousands of football fans in search of something to do. The neon lights may have been as vivid as those in central Tokyo, and the wide avenues as packed, but it was only the handful of western bars who were more than happy to open their doors to the 30 or so fans who could squeeze inside. For the most part, Saporro drinking establishments were the private Japanese-only members clubs where your tab for the night includes the price of the beautiful lady who pours your drink and engages you in polite conversation. It was no conspiracy to stop the fans drinking, just a different way of life.


For all of the startling cultural differences, the Japanese passion for football is thoroughly apparent and in their own way they have been bringing the tournament to life. For a nation not used to public displays of emotion, in their opening game against Belgium they chanted and screamed their way through one of the most exciting games of the competition so far. For those of us lucky enough to have been in the Saitama Stadium, the relentless chant of “Nippon, Nippon” gave fans of all nations a lesson in how to get behind a team.


For the Japanese, the national obsession with their main star Hidetoshi Nakata seems only to be matched by their huge interest in David Beckham. They turned out in force for the England v Sweden game to get behind England’s number seven, his every corner kick greeted by a dazzling barrage of camera flashes.


As for the great man himself, after the game he remained one of the few England players with a smile on his face. “It was an amazing atmosphere,” he said as he strolled out of the England dressing room, last of the squad. “We knew that we were going to have some fans out here, but we didn’t expect there to be this many. We’re disappointed that we’ve not got a win for them because 45 per cent of the stadium was full of England fans.”


Not all of them were English, of course. You’ll see the Japanese turning up to games in the colours of almost all of the competing nations, but England’s opening game was a sea of red and white. England might have the biggest travelling support at the tournament, but it was the Japanese who helped to double the amount of white shirts in the stadium -– most of which seemed to have the name Beckham on the back. Fans who don’t even know how to say ‘hello’ in English, know all about our most celebrated star. But that’s the international language of football – or is it the universal language of David Beckham?




© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007