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JAPAN/KOREA 2002 WORLD CUP COLUMN WEEK 4

FIRST PUBLISHED: Sport First newspaper, June 30, 2002
By Chris Hunt

 

Well, the World Cup of surprises is finally coming to a close in the most predictable way possible – with history’s two most consistent winners making it to the Final. And that, in a way, is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Going into the tournament Germany and Brazil were both considered to have their weakest teams in living memory. For a while it had even seemed possible that Brazil would fail to qualify for the first time in their history, and the Germans – as we know better than anybody – only snuck in through the backdoor of the play-offs. But when they walk out on to the pitch of the Yokohama International Stadium for the World Cup Final, all of that will be forgotten as two football giants slug it out for the biggest prize of all.

 

I just wish I could raise an interest in it all. I shall be there, of course, but I’m struggling to smile because this time it really seemed to be a World Cup with England’s name on it, the victory that would ease 36 years of hurt. It wasn’t our best team and it certainly wasn’t our most creative, but it seemed to be our luckiest team. And for that reason, 10,000 travelling England fans, and the entire nation back home, really believed that this was going to be our year. That football was finally coming home!

 

Within minutes of the end of England’s defeat to Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final, David Seaman – who over the years seems to have made it his life’s mission to avoid post-match press conferences – immediately faced the press. “I would just like to say sorry to the fans,” he said close to the edge of tears, delivering a message of apology to the nation.

 

With all of those great moments in an England shirt, David Seaman need not have apologised, but the fact that did was an indication that he knew just how deep the hurt was going to be – particularly for those fans who had made huge personal and financial sacrifices to follow the team to Japan. Some had even put their relationships on the line for the chance to see England win the World Cup.

 

Early in the tournament I chanced upon a Birmingham City fan who was no longer certain whether he still had a girlfriend back home. “I had an argument with her the day before I left,” he explained. “She’d worked out that for the cost of this trip we could have had a month in Barbados – and she doesn’t even know that the match tickets were another 1200! I’ve sent three text messages to her while I was travelling but she hasn’t replied and I sent her an email when I arrived in Tokyo, but I think it’s over now.”

 

And there was Michael, an Arsenal fan from Harrow, who will be returning to who knows what kind of personal hell. After winning 400 on Sol Campbell scoring England’s first goal of the tournament, he ploughed the cash straight into a flight to Japan – but he didn’t tell his other half that he was going! “I just left her a note,” he said. “That’s going to be the hardest part, going home. Do I live with her? Yes – well I might not now.”

 

For all his troubles, Michael didn’t manage to get into the Argentina game and was uncertain about how much he would be prepared to pay for a ticket to the Brazil clash. Asking prices were in the region of 600-1000 for the quarter-final and you’d need deep pockets indeed to pay that for a match.

 

The usual England fan’s policy of standing firm against the touts until just before kick-off and waiting for the prices to drop has been rendered null and void at this tournament by both the extremely high face-value prices and by the eagerness of the Japanese themselves to attend. England participated in easily the two most anticipated matches of the Finals – and despite the huge number of English fans inside, there were thousands of others who didn’t make it.

 

Whether you got into the ground or watched it on the TV in a local bar, defeat was hard to take when you were so certain of winning. Walking around the streets of Hamamatsu, a neighbouring town of Shizuoka and the only place I could find with a free hotel room on the night of the England v Brazil game, I stumbled into a Big Echo karaoke house to escape the partying Brazilians.

 

Still despondent because of the team’s performance, my very drunk Japanese hosts – the staff of Yamaha keyboards on a works night out – persuaded me to sing for them. I gave and gave them a selection of the classics of English pop culture: A Hard Day’s Night, Anarchy In the UK and Morning Glory. And then, at the behest of my hosts, I finished off with a spirited but poignant rendition of We Are The Champions. All the songs were screamed dreadfully, but were accompanied by the chants of my Anglophile hosts – they could speak no English but knew how to sing ‘England, England’ and ‘We love David Beckham’.

 

When the night was over, they courteously bowed and individually thanked me for singing to them. This is a very strange country indeed – but one which I have fallen very much in love with. They are a fascinating people and they certainly know how to bring a smile to the face of a very disillusioned England fan.

 

Although I have enjoyed my time in Japan, from the stories I’ve been told by people who have been at the other half of the World Cup, not getting to Korea has probably been my loss. But in a Korean bar in central Tokyo I witnessed at first hand a small slice of the passion that has been turning the games in Seoul into a sea of red. They screamed, they cheered, they cried – and on the final whistle, despite the pouring rain outside, these Korean fans flooded onto the streets of the Shinjuku to celebrate the achievements of their exciting and hardworking team. It would have taken a brave man indeed to bring up the subject of match fixing on that night – and perhaps here the Italians and the Spanish could learn a little about grace in defeat.

 

Saying goodbye to Japan after nearly six weeks will be hard, but getting home might be even harder still. Aeroflot have so far changed my flight on several occasions – once even scheduling me to a 30-hour stopover at Moscow airport. Having bumped into several other fans on this trip who have been similarly stranded overnight in Moscow in the past courtesy of Aeroflot, nothing will surprise me now. All I know is that at some point after Brazil meet Germany I will be coming home – hopefully in time to deliver to Sport First my last column of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Finals. In the meantime, I will count down the hours until the Final and dream about what could have been.

 

 

 

Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007