By David Hannigan
Wednesday May 29
Somewhere over the Berings Sea, I’m flicking through USA Today’s World Cup preview. I find a section advising its readers about some of the more exotic players’ names to watch out for in the competition when I come across our own Niall Quinn. Yes, in among such tongue twisters as Poland’s Piotr Swierczewski, Russia’s Vladimir Beschastnykh and France’s Zinedine Zidane, they have decided that poor old Quinn’s first name should be on the cheat sheet. Niall should be pronounced Nile, like the river, advises the journalist.
Thursday, May 30
All around Ginza you see them wandering the streets of one of Tokyo’s more exclusive shopping districts like lost sheep. Moving two paces slower than the natives of this teeming metropolis, and dressed up in some combination of that telltale garish green, the Irish fans are trying to acclimatize to their new surroundings. Not easily done when you don’t speak the language. For many, no, make that all, the only recognizable shop fronts are the golden arches of McDonald’s, and the green and black of Starbucks. For the weary traveler in need of some speedy sustenance and a caffeine kick to ward off the jet lag of a 13-hour time difference, these are welcome sights. We are all for globalization.
Friday, May 31
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My first full day in Tokyo and already I’m learning some new customs. For us strangers in a strange land, there is a certain ritual to be performed every time you see another Caucasian walking toward you on the sidewalk. Even though you’ve never met them before and can’t guess whether they are Italian, English, German or Croatian, you nod and smile like you’ve just seen an old friend. This is how I end up talking to Simon and Dean, the decent face of English football fans abroad. “We just cannot believe the amount of Irish here; everywhere we go we see those jerseys,” the Londoners say. Neither loud nor obnoxious like so many of their kin, they are just looking for a bar that’s showing that night’s game between France and Senegal. Their eyes light up when I inform them a TGI Fridays lay just around the corner from where we spoke. This far away from home, there is a certain comfort in familiarity.
On the way to Yokohama to pick up my media accreditation, the journey offers the first real glimpse of Tokyo and its surrounds. Two things stand out. There are a lot of baseball diamonds and a lot of golf ranges. In fact, it is incredible the spaces into which they have squeezed golf ranges that are entirely covered in by green netting. With tee-off times on proper courses at a premium, this golf-crazy nation pack out these floodlit ranges every hour of the day and night.
The baseball phenomenon is huge too. When I get to Yokohama, there are dozens of commuters standing outside the train station, their necks craned toward a big screen showing the Seattle Mariners versus the Baltimore Orioles. I am unable to work out whether this is live or on tape delay. All I do know is that the Mariners are popular here, that Ichiro stares down from every second advertising hoarding and has a Pepsi commercial which is never off the TV.
Saturday, June 1
For six and a half months, the Irish fans have been waiting for this day. Now they are gathered in twos and threes along the platform waiting for the 6:40 a.m. bullet train from Tokyo to Niigata. And just to show how adaptable they are, they are lined up behind their fellow passengers in straight lines. Where other countries just string out across the platforms of train and subway stations like disorderly rabble, the Japanese form perfect lines, never resorting to elbows or pushing. Two hours and 10 minutes of exceptionally smooth train travel later, the policemen at Niigata station are wielding 4-foot-long wooden poles in a manner that suggests they know well how to use them.
The pre-tournament hype about the hooligan menace has been so bad that at one stage, the Japanese were debating how to cater to children who might be the result of rioting fans raping their women. The faces of the police betray utter bewilderment then when the hordes of Irish exit the train station like celebrities, as delighted passersby ask to pose for photographs with these exotic visitors. For the Japanese, an overweight Meath man in a Kepak jersey with a floppy clown’s hat on his head and a line of patter that begins and ends with “How’s she’s cuttin’?” is truly exotic. A hoary old clichT it might be, but the Irish fans do a consistently wonderful job of endearing themselves to the people of whatever country they visit. By the day’s end the policeman with the big sticks would look kind of embarrassed.
At quarter past three local time, the teams emerge from the tunnel and the Irish players are met by a sea of green and extended cheering. It’s not quite Giants Stadium in 1994, where the Italians were shocked to see that their fans were outnumbered eight to one, but there must be 10,000 Irish supporters here. Factoring in the steep cost of getting to Japan, that is some impressive statistic. Looking at their faces permanently flushed red in the heat brought to mind Roy Keane at home in Manchester. A lot of ordinary people went to extraordinary lengths and traveled 6,000 miles to be here, and because of mutual stubbornness on the captain and the manager’s parts, our best player isn’t even present. Want to know what the fans think of that? Well, after an opening 20 minutes in which the team had started quite brightly, they launched into an extended burst of “Are you watching, Roy Keane?”
At the end, something kind of odd happens. We drew a game we could have easily won. Cameroon drew a game they could easily have lost. And yet, at the final whistle it is the Irish bench that is exchanging hugs and waving fists in the air triumphantly. After all, that has happened during the build-up, getting anything at all from this match must have been a relief. Mick McCarthy and his squad, or what remains of it, have been through a lot together over the last fortnight. They obviously feel some sort of vindication.
“This has been the toughest week of my life,” McCarthy says afterward. “It’s not been a good thing. And it’s been the toughest week of my family’s life too. I dare say it’s been a tough week for Roy and his family too. That’s all I’m saying, it’s been tough for all of us. In training the lads have been just brilliant, they’ve never stopped working. And if anybody wants an answer to the question of how it all has affected them, the second half is your answer in spades.”
Sunday, June 2
Almost 10 hours ago, the final whistle blew in the Big Swan Stadium and the first leg of Ireland’s World Cup journey had ended. Now, as the clock nears 3 in the morning, there are maybe 500 Irish fans and a few dozen enthusiastic Japanese massed outside The Black Pig, Niigata’s Irish bar. From the “Fields of Athenry” through “Joxer Goes to Stuttgart” to “The Green Fields of France,” every standard gets an airing. Eventually, the chorus gets tired and some bright spark produces a ball. Suddenly, the largest impromptu game of soccer you’ve ever seen is being played up and down the street. It’s Ireland vs. Japan, but it’s impossible to judge who’s winning as most participants end up falling over in a heap every time they kick the ball. It is drunken, raucous and hilarious to watch. If the English fans behaved like this, the police would be called. When the Irish do it, the locals get in the spirit of things and marvel at our sense of fun.
The English fans aren’t doing too badly either so far. Arriving into Saitama on Sunday afternoon, they were in colorful mood, their costumes and their attitudes evincing optimism ahead of their team’s debut in the so-called Group of Death. One of them is carrying a huge replica of the World Cup and wearing a giant St. George’s flag as a toga. Another has on a facemask of Queen Elizabeth II and is informing all and sundry that he is honoring her majesty’s 50th jubilee. When Sweden put manners on England in the second half, and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side is lucky to escape with a draw, the supporters are disgruntled but still behaving.
Monday, June 3
Amid footage of Irish and English fans mingling merrily outside Tokyo’s Sports CafT, one of the Japanese channels is running an item about the lack of hooliganism so far and pondering how well the visiting supporters have comported themselves. That any hooligans have yet to rear up and cause trouble is not that surprising. Before the tournament began, the Japanese riot police unveiled one specially designed piece of artillery that fires a net at troublemakers and brings them down in a heap from 50 feet. Spiderman has nothing on these guys. They also have the power to arrest and detain miscreants for up to three weeks without charge and their prosecution service has a 97 percent conviction rate. If that doesn’t ensure peace and goodwill for the next four weeks, nothing will.