|

HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO!

Hopes and fears fuel soccer fans’ far-flung parties

by James Mulligan

Walking up Gaien-Higashi Dori, the road that begins at Tokyo Tower and cuts through the Roppongi entertainment district, at 7 in the morning last Saturday there was more than the usual bags of garbage being torn at by crows, bleary-eyed hosts and hostesses knocking off work, or resting ticket touts and spaced-out clubbers to sidestep on the way to Roppongi Station.

Every shop doorway, bar entrance and other available nook or cranny seemed to harbor someone sleeping, with the number of bodies increasing toward the station — and with it the realization that this slumber party had a dress code: navy blue polyester shirt, tartan kilt and sporran. Tartan hat (on the head or lying nearby) optional.

Clearly, a fair few Scotland soccer fans hadn’t managed to make it home after the game against Japan the night before. More than a fair few, actually; in fact about 20, and even though the trains had by then been running for quite a while, none of them looked like they were going anywhere soon.

Minutes later, though, at the station’s ticket gate I bumped into one fan clad de rigeur whom I’d just seen stirring on the street. Already he’d managed to procure a can of beer, and as he clutched it for dear life it was hard to tell which was keeping the other vertical.

“Late night, eh?” said I.

“Aye,” said he, dourly seeming to be pushing his chit-chat envelope to the limit.

“Good sleep?”

“Are youse English? Cos yer can stick yer World Cup up yer ****, yer can stick yer World Cup up yer ****,” he began to sing.

Ah yes. The final whistle had blown around 10 hours before on Scotland’s draw with Japan. With that, the visitors had not only won the Kirin Cup, but this fan had obviously availed himself of the victor’s spoils to tell mere Sassenachs wherever he might meet them how much he respected that 1966 World Cup win against West Germany.

He wasn’t alone in his sentiments.

After that game on Friday — in the heaving Legends Bar in Roppongi — more than 100 Scotland supporters were giving voice with gusto to the same little ditty as a handful of wide-eyed Japanese customers, a few intrepid English and a gaggle of bemused North Americans soaked in the spectacle.

Why did they stay? Well, despite the vast quantities of drink being downed, there was not a hint of trouble. The boisterous atmosphere was nothing but good natured.

However, when I asked a Japanese girl at the bar if she thought the Scottish supporters were hooligans, she said “Yes.” The wrongheadedness of her answer didn’t surprise me; she’d probably been reading too many newspapers.

In fact, not one of the customers looked like they had a fight in them as they sang themselves silly and valiantly tried to get the Japanese to join in.

The same exuberance as the Scots’ was evident among Japan’s fans during the Japan-Korea 2002 World Cup, which seemed to capture the public’s imagination like nothing before. Victories over Russia and Tunisia led to enormous crowds gathering in Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku to shout “Nippon! Nippon!” There was plenty of drinking, too, and a rowdiness rarely seen. But there was no violence.

Three years later, at Tokyo’s National Stadium, where a huge screen showed Japan’s crucial World Cup qualifier against North Korea being played in Bangkok, tens of thousands of fans clad like the Boys in Blue had celebrated qualification for Germany 2006 — Japan’s third consecutive World Cup finals. Again, as with the equally impassioned Scottish fans last weekend, there was bonhomie by the barrel — but ne’er a hooligan to be seen. That’s left to other countries’ fans.

This time, though, Scotland won’t be going to Germany, so for the fans the Kirin Cup in Japan was their World Cup. I asked some of them in the bar why they came all this way for two essentially meaningless matches. Their answers — punctuated by a relentless buying of rounds that suggested wanton drinking was a key component of any away trip — settled on their hopes and fears: the hope that their team would triumph and their fear of missing out on it if they do. In the Scotland fans’ case their hopes and fears were justified, as Scotland posted one of their biggest-ever victories (a 5-1 win over Bulgaria) on the way to lifting the Kirin Cup.

One fan told me how he wouldn’t have missed the trip for the world, even beset by drink as it was. In fact, on the flight from Glasgow to London’s Heathrow Airport, he said he had managed to misplace his passport — but somehow contrived to find a priest there to sign and authorize some photos so he could rush through a replacement passport before catching a later flight to Tokyo. There, he got on the shinkansen to Kobe . . . only to promptly fall asleep and miss the stop, ending up in distant Okayama. He finally got to the stadium five minutes before kickoff.

The Japan fans are similar in their obsession. That’s why, for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Iran in March 2005, 800 fanatics went on a 42-hour sleep-deprived trip from Tokyo to Tehran. For their efforts, they got to watch the sole defeat in Japan’s qualification campaign that featured 11 other wins. But the fans weren’t to know that. It was a trip they had to make.

These forbidding dangan (bullet) tours, organized by travel agencies for national team away games, are on offer for the World Cup, too, starting at 300,000 yen ($2,500) — without a match ticket. And you can be sure there will be plenty of enthusiastic takers — including some who will likely even give up their jobs just because it’s the World Cup — and because Japan’s there.

The Scottish fans’ Japan pilgrimage was for them just as costly as any dangan tour, which explains the alfresco slumber party as hotels are often deemed an unnecessary expense.

But like the thousands of Japanese among the estimated 3.5 million visitors who will be heading to Germany for the World Cup finals next month, money and mattresses are minor matters in the greater sporting scheme of things. In the end, it’s the hopes and fears that count.