By Dave Hhannigan
The train from Tokyo to Kashima takes us through a rich agricultural region. Of course, when one of our number spots these legions of farmers wearing the coned headgear and tending to the rice crop, he sees this as an omen. “How can the Irish possibly lose tonight after passing through all these paddy fields?” Maybe he was right because tonight was one of those nights that will pass into sporting folklore, like Giants Stadium in 1994, Cagliari four years earlier, and Stuttgart way back in 1988. This will be one to tell the grandkids about.
If you know your Irish soccer history, you will realize that it is littered with last-minute goals, dodgy refereeing decisions, and unlucky breaks, all of which went against us. This was different. This was us getting what we deserved but getting it right at the death. I don’t know how Robbie Keane had the energy and the wherewithal 3 minutes into added injury time to do what he did, because he and Damien Duff, two indomitable tykes leading the forward line, had worked tirelessly all evening. I just know that Keane drew something from somewhere because I saw it with my own eyes.
In the press box, objectivity went out the window as every Irish journalist was on his or her feet punching the air with glee. An Italian colleague leaned over and assured me: “You deserved this, my friend, you deserved this!” And we did. For most of the game, Mick McCarthy’s team had outplayed and outthought the Germans and there was no injustice in snagging an equalizer so late. When the Germans had long since departed the fray, McCarthy, his entire back room team and every member of the squad lined up in the corner of the stadium where most Irish fans were billeted and did a collective bow. The stars of the show know well how best to leave the stage.
On such a memorable occasion, one or two strange sights need to be read into the record. At about the point Keane’s shot was billowing the back of Oliver Kahn’s net, every English reporter around us started jumping up and down with glee. Later, we would be told that in the pubs of Tokyo, English fans celebrated the result as if their own team had won. Must be something to do with the enemy of my enemy being my friend.
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Thurs., June 6
Perhaps nothing sums up how much that game took out of everybody better than the mood on the specially laid-on late trains back to Tokyo. There was no singing, just an air of quiet satisfaction as the green-clad hordes began discussing ways and means of financing what looks like a trip to the second round of the World Cup. There must have been 10,000 Irish in that arena last night and the distances they travel are always impressive.
Originally from Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, John Lawless made the journey from his home in California with his girlfriend, Shauna. He wanted to see the first two Ireland games and witness Brazil taking on Turkey in Korea in between. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, he informed me that they are flying back that very afternoon and Shauna, brave soul that she is, is due at work on Friday morning on the West Coast. Well, we said, at least she’ll be going back with some good stories to share around the water cooler.
Fri., June 7
Again and again, the intercom at Haneda Airport requests travelers to get to the departure gates early because increased security checks are in place to counter the threat of terrorism. Unfortunately, the Japanese system isn’t too impressive in this regard. No photo identification is asked for at the check-in desk and when you put your bags through the monitor, the guard merely wants to know: “Have you got a knife?” Food for thought as the Japan Airlines 747 ferries me and a couple of hundred English fans toward the northern island of Hakkaido and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side’s date with Argentina.
We soccer purists flinch at the thought of games being played indoor, but as I take my seat inside the Sapporo Dome, an air-conditioned arena designed to resemble a giant computer mouse, the atmosphere is phenomenal. More than a century ago, the English introduced the game of soccer to Buenos Aires only to watch the natives become far superior exponents of the sport. Factor in the Falklands War, Diego Maradona’s hand of God goal in 1986, and David Beckham’s dismissal in St. Etienne four years ago, and the weight of history bears down on this clash like few others in the tournament.
Unfortunately, the English supporters inevitably drag the occasion down when they whistle and boo throughout the Argentinean anthem, and pepper so much of their cheering with verses of “Rule Britannia.” Their team deserved to win, though on a night when the Argentineans just didn’t play as a unit. After every match, an area called the Mixed Zone is set aside so journalists can try to get post-match comments from players — there is none of the sophistication of American sport, where locker-room access is part of the culture.
Anyway, I’m standing there with a few others listening to Paul Scholes, one of England’s best players, give his views when a passing Argentinean substitute utters the word “bastardo” in his direction. Scholes pauses and without flinching shouts back “Wankers!” Charming stuff.
In a wonderful post-script, I get back to the Sapporo Sheraton at one in the morning. Standing in a crowded elevator, the doors suddenly open on to the landing of the fourth floor. There, staring back at me are the majority of the Argentinean team. Before the doors quickly shut again and the elevator operator offers his apologies, I estimate I’m within inches of maybe $150 million worth of soccer stars.
Sat., June 8
Nothing bugs me about the English fans more than this. There were no recorded incidents of hooliganism last night, so I’m sitting in a cafT at Sapporo Airport listening to them drone on about what great supporters they are and how they did their country proud. First, booing another nation’s anthem isn’t something that should inspire pride, and, second, managing to go to a major tournament and not disgrace yourselves by fighting isn’t something they should seek credit for.
Apart from the incredibly strict anti-hooligan measures put in place by the authorities over here, there is something else that I reckon has contributed to the lack of trouble. On the way to any game, there are literally thousands of Japanese people wearing the shirts of the participating nations. So, how can English fans possibly rear up when on the way into the stadium yesterday, they encountered Japanese couples walking along hand in hand, him wearing an English jersey, her sporting the Argentinean one?
Sun., June 9
When Junichi Inamoto scores for Japan 51 minutes into their clash with Russia in Yokohama, the whole of the country seems to jump two feet in the air and scream. The co-hosts may be newcomers to soccer, but they have embraced the sport with an admirable enthusiasm and fervor. It seems the entire population of Tokyo has bought a replica of the Nippon’s blue jersey. By the time kickoff arrives, it’s standing-room-only in the bars around Takadanobaba and watching the game in the company of some Japanese fans is the next best thing to being there. They applaud vigorously, shriek continuously, and go berserk at the final whistle. This is their first-ever victory in the competition and offers them a great chance of a trip to the second round. Utterly seduced by the welcome they have offered us everywhere we go, we have adopted them as our second team. The accompanying chant is a simple enough “Nippon! Nippon! Nippon!”
Mon., June 10
In the lobby of the Taisho Central Hotel, the talk is of available flights to Seoul and the price of ferries to South Korea. With 24 hours to go before Ireland’s must-win game against Saudi Arabia, the fans are so confident of pending victory that they are beating a path to the travel agents, phrase-books in hand and the advanced stages of the World Cup on their mind. Less than three weeks ago, in the middle of Keanegate, the prospect of qualifying out of a group also containing Germany and Cameroon seemed remote. Now, we are discussing how the likely second-round opponents, Spain, may cope with Messrs. Keane and Duff and standing within sight of the promised land.