FIRST PUBLISHED: Sport First newspaper, June 16, 2002
By Chris Hunt


There’s nothing better to liven up a World Cup than a surprise, and the second week of this tournament has been full of them. The opening game might have thrown up the amazing sight of the mighty French world champions humbled by the little-fancied Senegalese, but this time the real surprises wasn’t defeat in the opening game, but the team’s inability to turn their fortunes around.


In bars across Japan the early exit of the French – followed soon after by the Argentines – has given this tournament its talking point. It has also given thousands of travelling fans a reason to hope. For many who have journeyed half way around the world ‘just for the craic’, for the excitement of being caught up in the whirlwind of a major sporting tournament, the talk now is not of ‘participation’ but of ‘glory’.


Even the dourest of managers – those who would never have thought of even dreaming of glory – now have broad smiles on their faces. “I’ll be sorry to see the back of Japan as we’ve enjoyed it, but you never know, we might be back,” grinned Mick McCarthy as the Irish set off for the next round in Korea. “We came here to try and win it. Is that realistic? Who knows. But the French would swap with us right now, wouldn’t they, and there will be 16 other teams wishing they were in our shoes.”


McCarthy might have looked quietly content, but leaving the Yokohama stadium the Irish fans were ecstatic. As they headed for their trains back into central Tokyo, and their short but complicated onward journeys to Korea, the boys in green caught sight of a series of advertising hoardings eulogising the talents of the biggest French star. To the amusement of the Japanese, as one they began to wave goodbye. “Sayonara, sayonara,” they chanted, “sayonara Zinedine Zidanne.”


If the early exit of the champions amused the Irish, the importance of the result was not even lost on the Japanese, a nation relatively new to football. I chanced upon several hundred local fans standing in the street in central Tokyo in the mid afternoon heat. They were staring 20 yards into the air to watch the France v Denmark match on a series of large TV screens that could just about be glimpsed through the plate glass windows of a second floor café. With only ten minutes of the match remaining, the queue to enter the bar still snaked around the corner, while the crowd outside, deprived of the game by the strange Japanese policy of broadcasting the majority of matches on pay TV channels, stood in disbelief as the action was screened far above their heads. Every tackle was accompanied by an ‘oooh’, every attempt on goal by an ‘ahhh’.


At the games themselves, the Japanese have thrown themselves into the carnival of football, regardless of what teams are on the pitch. They’ve turned up and cheered and played a part in making this one of the great World Cups. Thousands more have turned up at the grounds without a ticket, just to savour the atmosphere and watch the strange westerners with their painted faces. As a nation, these people seem to be learning very fast about our beautiful game, and with their performances on the pitch and their enthusiasm off it, I think come June 30, the World Cup will really have left a significant mark on he people of Japan.


In a week of surprises, perhaps there has been no bigger shock than the realisation by the Japanese police force that their most significant headache thus far has been the celebrations of their own people – not the Euro ‘hooligans’ that the entire nation had been warned about in daily media bulletins in the run-up to the finals.


Having now become dedicated students of the culture of football, the usually reserved Japanese decided to celebrate their first ever World Cup win by taking to the streets with a fervour not usually associated with their people. The local police, newly trained at length in the techniques of controlling such displays of western anti-social behaviour, could only look on in disbelief as the chants of ‘Nippon, Nippon’ filled the air and the crowds filled the streets.


However western in style their celebrations seemed to be, they still remained typically Japanese – the enthusiasm may have been heartfelt, but the mayhem had an edge of control. In the midst of thousands of blue shirts adorned with names like Nakata and Ono, you would regularly see a group of fans climb up a lamp-post, but after being admonished by a policeman, they would bow politely, climb down and continue cheering. You would see others dance on top of cars, before a quick stare from an officer of the law would bring an apologetic bow and a quick dismount.


Not quite the hooliganism this country had been anticipating. In the build up to the tournament, Japanese TV screens had been broadcasting one message: beware of the English. On crowded metro trains you would hear the word ‘hooligan’ mumbled in the middle of Japanese conversations, but contrary to the hype, and despite local camera crews out in force every night desperately in search of trouble, in just two weeks the Japanese public have made up their own mind – they seem to have fallen in love with the English fans.


More than that, the only confrontational situation I’ve witnessed involving an Englishman came a few minutes after the end of the game in Sapporo, when two Argentine players tried to goad Paul Scholes into a reaction. Midway through an interview with a handful of journalists, myself included, Scholes found the Argentine players trying to antagonise him as they brushed past on their way to the team bus. They stopped a couple of yards from the Manchester United midfielder, trying to stare him down. Breaking from his interview in mid sentence, Scholes stood his ground and matched their stare until they turned and walked away. Scholes mumbled an expletive under his breath and resumed his interview. This seems to be a tournament where the battles are fought on the pitch, not in the streets!


As for the Argentina victory itself, man of the match Paul Scholes may have played his part, but I’d still like to take the credit for this amazing win myself. Standing in a departure lounge queue the day before, waiting to board the plane from Tokyo to Sapporo, I found myself on the same flight as referee Pierluigi Collina, who was besieged by football fans wanting to have their picture taken with him. Waving a 5,000 Yen note in his direction – at approximately £25, it’s probably not the biggest bung offer ever thrown at a referee – I attempted to play my own small part in helping England to victory. But Collina was not biting. “You can’t afford me,” he snapped, as those fierce eyes latched onto me and held tight. Ten minutes later as I made my way onto the plane, his frosty gaze and disapproving shake of the head made it clear that this was a man immune to even the merest suggestion of a ‘bung’.


The next evening, after the lightest of brushes to Michael Owen had resulted in a match-winning penalty, I half expected Collina to come knocking on my hotel door in search of his cash. But, as always, he had controlled the game with authority and integrity. He may not have taken my bung, but having now completed his hat-trick of winning matches for England – he was also in charge of the victories over the Germans in both Charleroi and Munich – I always feel that a great night for the English is never complete without world football’s first truly superstar referee. He’s not in charge of the final, is he?




© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007