FIRST PUBLISHED: Sport First newspaper, June 23, 2002
By Chris Hunt


Sitting on the Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo after England’s rout of Denmark, it strikes me that the people of Japan don’t need to have made this much effort to stage their half of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. As our train pulls out of Niigata station, I notice three Japanese tourist information staff, their cheeks decorated with the flags of the night’s two competing nations, standing on the platform with a 15-foot banner that reads ‘Goodbye, hope to see you soon’. Lined up alongside them at regular intervals all the way along the platform are the neatly uniformed station staff, all smiling enthusiastically and animatedly waving their goodbyes to us. It’s gone one o’clock in the morning and these people are standing on a station platform to thank us for coming to their city.


That they should thank us! Anyone fortunate enough to spend time in this welcoming country has been blessed with the experience of a lifetime – and the friendly, helpful, interesting, intriguing people of Japan have played their part in making this a truly amazing World Cups.


Everywhere you go, the people make an effort – above and beyond the call of duty – to ensure that when you leave their country, win, lose or draw, you’ll do so with fond memories. Try getting out a football stadium without encountering hundreds of stewards lining your exit route, waving, bowing, smiling and – again – thanking you for coming. Stand in any city centre looking puzzled and someone will come to your aid. Get a map out of your bag, even if it’s just to remind yourself of what Metro line you need, and a passer-by will be there with directions. Sit in a bar alone having a quiet drink, and you’ll be engaged in a lengthy conversation, in pigeon English, about David Beckham.


All the scare stories circulating before the tournament, perpetuated by guidebooks and newspaper columns, have proven unfounded: getting about is no problem; cash-points are easy to find; credit cards are accepted in many places; and railways signs are translated into English (as are many of the onboard announcements).


Every fan has the same story to tell. People who came to the World Cup sceptical about life in the land of the rising sun have been completely bowled over by the entire Japanese experience – chopsticks and all! Many fans will go home having learnt something from the trip, even if it’s just an understanding of what it’s like to live in a country where people respect one another, where the streets are largely free of litter, and where trains are clean, fast and get there dead on time. But the Japanese have been learning too. More than anything they have been learning how to celebrate.


After their three undefeated group games, the fans of ‘Nippon’ had become quite adept at taking to the streets to cheer each victory, revelling in the intensity and passion unleashed by the game. Football has given them an opportunity to let go, to go completely out of control for a few minutes, so much so that they were not prepared to let the small matter of defeat and World Cup exit get in the way of their newly acquired celebration techniques.


After Turkey had edged Japan out of the competition, they chose not to follow the Italian example – rather than inquisitions and accusations, their fans decided to party. In Shinjuku, central Tokyo, we found large groups of fans literally hurling themselves at each other, at strangers, screaming in delight, hugging whoever came pasts, and – if you were western – demanding you pose for photo opportunities.


Thankfully for the authorities, the Japanese did not have an opportunity to put into practice the lessons learned from the England fans in the game against Denmark. With the decisive first-half performance settling the match early, the second period of the game was most notable for the party antics of the English.


Waving their shirts in the air and chanting ‘Let’s Go Oriental’, they did the conga around the stadium. And not just one conga, at every level of the Niigata Big Swan Stadium there were concentric congas – with swarms of fans, from every area of the ground, running from their seats to join the party. The timid announcement that people should remain seated was a warning shot across the bows of the watching Japanese, but it was too late – they had seen it. Defeat against Turkey just means they haven’t had a chance to put the conga into practice yet. But give them time and an occasion.


While the English did the conga, the Brazilians took on Belgium and did the samba, their fans turning the match in Kobe as yellow as the England match was white. This left the Japanese in something of a dilemma in the build up to the quarter-final game in Shizuoka: which team to support? And that’s where the David Beckham factor kicks in.


All over Japan, there are young men are sporting the ‘Beckham cut’. In Osaka we came across a bartender who was unable to speak a word of English, but he had his hair styled in that half-hearted mohican favoured by ‘Becks’. In Tokyo we found a father shaking his head and bemoaning that his teenage son had gone for, of all things, a ‘Beckham’. In Niigatta we chanced upon a gang of lads, each of them sporting the Beckham shirt and the Beckham look. It’s everywhere – men, women, young and old. In a country where youth seem fascinated by the styles of the west, there is currently no more dominant style leader than the England captain.


But then he knows all about that. After admitting this week that his popularity in the far east was of such a significant level that it even outweighed the intense interest elsewhere in the world, Becks revealed an ambition to establish a network of Bobby Charlton-style football coaching schools out here. If it’s a business venture he’s after, though, the feeling on the streets of Japan is that he’d make more cash by setting up a chain of hairdressers. Something for the weekend sir?




Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007