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World Cup Diary: Sayonara after an eventful sojourn

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

Tues., June 11

A group of fans are gathered in the hotel lobby. They are heading out early to go to Mount Fuji in the morning before heading to Yokohama for Ireland against Saudi Arabia in the afternoon. A bit of sightseeing, a bit of soccer, the perfect mix. Except for one guy. Sprawled across three chairs, he announces he’s not bothered with the trip to Mount Fuji. When they ask him why not, he replies: “I’ve been looking at bloody mountains all my live in Wicklow, I couldn’t be arsed going to look at another one.”

Half a day later, the scene is a stairway at Shin-Yokohama train station just before midnight. As thousands of supporters are trying to make their way to the upstairs platforms to catch shuttles back to downtown Tokyo, there is an inevitable hold up. On a humid evening, the air is thick with the stench of stale beer and sweat, but the wait is made a little more tolerable when one Irish fan starts waving at a giant advertising poster of the world’s best footballer and briefly sustains a chant of “Sayanora Zidane.” In the space of a few hours, France headed for home and Ireland secured safe passage to South Korea and the second round. Why wouldn’t we be laughing? Our only complaint about the 3-0 triumph is the lack of suspense and excitement. After the last-minute drama against Germany and the heroic comeback against Cameroon, we have become almost blasT about qualifying for the next stage. We almost forget to be grateful.

Wed., June 12

On the 6:30 a.m. Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka (note: we spend a lot of time on the rails and not a lot of time sleeping during World Cups), an immaculately dressed middle-aged businessman takes the seat beside me. In his hands, he has the morning newspapers and a bento box containing his breakfast. So far, so expected. Then he reaches into his suitcase, pulls out a can of beer and begins supping away as he flicks through the stock listings and starts working on some documents obviously related to his job. Before coming here, we had some concerns about how the Japanese would react to the ludicrously excessive drinking that is a part of the culture surrounding this game. Even though we have subsequently discovered that they are heavy drinkers and hugely tolerant of drunkenness themselves, I was still trying hard not to ask him was this how he started every day.

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England’s scoreless encounter with Nigeria is probably the worst game of the tournament so far. The Africans don’t seem to believe they can win, so they sit back for long spells and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team are struggling with the oppressive mid-afternoon heat. The only memorable feature of the day is the ride from the stadium back to the train station afterward. In Osaka, the people are so hungry for glimpses of the soccer celebrities that when they see a shuttle bus ferrying groups of media, they start screaming “Beck-hamm, Beck-hamm” and snapping photographs excitedly. Would have liked to have been there when they developed the shots and discover they have nice pictures of grumpy journalists from a variety of countries.

On the train back to Tokyo, the mood among the English fans is not good. A horrendous match had yielded progress to the second round but the manner in which they had went through thieved the day of any real joy. A tall, skinny Londoner in our carriage is strolling up and down from the canteen car, seeing if a regular supply of cans of Asahi beer would improve his outlook. At one point, one of his compatriots stops him to compliment him on his T-shirt. Emblazoned across a map of Europe were the words: “Gibralter (sic) Tour 88 SAS 3 IRA 0. Like so much else to do with the English fans, it had nothing at all to do with football, but as he says himself: “It is facking clever, innit?” Moron.

Thurs., June 13

In the media center in Yokohama, a journalist from a Bulgarian newspaper asks to interview me and when I start laughing, he explains in perfect English: “We have 20 pages to fill every day, we must write story after story. Today, I need to do Ireland.” Bulgaria haven’t even qualified for this World Cup and this guy’s readers are consuming 20 pages a day about this tournament. Mind boggling.

Fri., June 14

Watched Japan’s victory over Tunisia from the safety of my hotel room. All over town, most of the bars and restaurants are ticket-only admission as the co-hosts seek to reach the second round for the first time in their history. Six hours after the final whistle marks the fulfillment of the dream, I walk outside the hotel to discover bedlam on the streets. Hundreds of teenagers are celebrating on a little square outside Takadonababba station and every second person seems intoxicated by either the victory, the alcohol or maybe both. Strolling into the Hub pub, I meet John McPartland, a Dubliner, and we conclude that we must be the last Irish people left in the city.

As we take a seat, a group of businessman start shouting at us, wanting to know where we are from. We tell them we come from Ireland, to which they respond in the most delightful teenage-girl-seeing-her-favorite-pop-idol-up-close shriek “Robbie Keane, Robbie Keane.” They then get down off their stools and start trying to replicate the bow and arrow pulling mime that Keane used to mark the scoring of his second goal of the competition against Saudia Arabia. We sit there, staring at a group of businessmen in classic white shirts, dull ties and conservative suits doing this and figure the world has definitely, really and truly gone berserk.

Sat., June 15

Arrive at the Capitol Hotel in Seoul and discover another country with a serious dose of the fever. One of my colleagues watched South Korea’s win over Portugal (the result that helped the U.S. team through) the previous night in the company of a million people in a square in the center of this chaotic but charming city. Road rules appear to be at a minimum and in the throbbing Itawoen quarter, we soon discover that the place never sleeps. There are curbside restaurants selling all manner of delicacies at ridiculously low prices. The seating consists of nothing more than a bench, and the two old women who run the operation we frequent just kept the food coming until we have to nearly plead with them to stop. There are the usual jokes about dog meat but we have done our homework. Dog meat costs five times the price of pork or chicken. Well, we hope that we have done our homework.

Sun., June 16

At the end, when their lap of the field takes Mick McCarthy and his players to the touchline in front of where the press are seated, we rise to a man and applaud them as they pass. There is supposed to be no cheering in the press box, but what are we supposed to do? A team deprived of its best player had just played one of the great soccer nations off the park and lost in the most unjust way of all. We are journalists but we are also Irishmen and our faces betray as much. Having come to Japan in disarray, they came within a whisker of the quarterfinals. It was an extraordinary evening. Watching Damian Duff tear apart the Spanish defense over and over, drawing gasps from the crowd each time he nipped mysteriously through tiny gaps between defenders, there was a sense this was going to be our night.

We return to the same eatery of the previous evening (having suffered no ill-effects from whatever that meat actually was) and begin a post-mortem that lasts until dawn. We sip our beers and seek solace in the joy we experienced in witnessing Duff becoming a world-class player over the last three weeks. A couple of German journalists sit down on the bench beside us and pay us the best compliment of all.

“We could win this competition,” they say, “but our country would prefer if our team played like your team did. You have always fought hard but now you have players with real skill. We are boring and negative.” It’s nothing we didn’t know already, but still nice to hear it from neutral observers.

Monday, June 17

The Japanese woman at the American Airlines connections desk at Tokyo’s Narita Airport opens my passport and offers her condolences. “Sorry about the game,” she says. “You all go home now?”

Yes, unfortunately we do.

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