A toast to the hosts with the most
The teenager rolling across the concourse at Tokyo station was the epitome of Japanese cool. A fuzzy busby of hair dyed ginger, straggly goatee, big trousers and, to complete the look, a designer combat jacket.
On the sleeve of the jacket was buttoned—in the manner of the Stone Island label favoured by British football hooligans—the all-important logo.
It read “This Will Make You Sweat”, the mark of an apparently au courant designer label here. As a brand name, you feel, it may need some work if it is to penetrate the English market.
About 10 years ago the Face magazine ran a feature on the Japanese fad for English words on their clothes. It was the shape of the letters people found appealing; meaning was not necessary. Just as well, because the chaotic jumble—“dance big crazy wild” was a top seller—generally meant nothing at all. Things have moved on from those early days of language abuse. In 2002, the plentiful splurges of English you see all around Tokyo make sense, in a surreal sort of way.
“The world varies according to the master,” read the legend on one T-shirt I spotted on the tube, and a clothes shop in the fashionable Shinjoya area is called Passing Time Reveals All. (A name not quite as memorable as an equipment-hire store in Niigata called Hard Off, which suggests that unfortunately trade is rather limp at the moment.)
The Japanese way with the English language is a bit like their approach to football: they don’t quite get it but, boy, they are not shy about having a go.
This is a nation that has, until now, absorbed its football almost entirely through the cathode-ray tube. These are fans from the face-paint age, their heroes the players they have seen on commercials. In the stadiums, they respond only to the mega slo-mo moments.
They sit in polite silence until David Beckham gets the ball, at which point they gasp as if on the point of collective orgasm. The biggest noise I have heard in a stadium so far was when a Nigerian forward attempted an overhead kick. That he failed to direct his effort anywhere near goal did not matter: this was football as they play it on the adverts.
Which is why they are so fascinated by the visiting supporters, who bring with them the sniff of authenticity (which, as humidity levels soar, in the case of some of the Irish is detectable at 40m); for instance the little knot of Cameroonian women dancers in Niigata, who wiggled their hips with an impressive dedication.
For an hour before the game and for 90 minutes during it they were completely surrounded by Japanese taking their photographs. Not pressmen, just ordinary fans astonished at the sights and sounds descending on their town.
And the excitement was by no means restricted to the African visitors. Outside the stadium the fancy-dress parade that is Ireland’s support was being snapped at every turn. There were leprechauns and green superheroes, and a platoon of Elvises posed with local children, enjoying popularity the real thing would have been pushed to match.
None, though, got more attention than a man in a kilt, who kept lifting up his hem to widespread gasps of delight from his hosts. This being an Irishman rather than a Scot, he had something under there: a thong and a suspender belt. Fair enough; why shouldn’t high court judges enjoy their football too?
Such is their enthusiasm for their visitors, that many of the Japanese have taken to adopting a visiting nationality for the day. As a member of the BBC’s army of representatives over here pointed out, the England crowd in Saitama was by far the best behaved, politest, most pleasant bunch of England supporters ever to assemble at an international, largely because at least three-quarters of them were Japanese.
So far I have seen Japanese Irish, Japanese Argentinians and dozens of Japanese sporting the sleeveless shirts of Cameroon. But the most touching sight of all came during Nigeria’s national anthem when, in among the hundred or so Nigerian fans gathered behind the goal, a bare-chested Japanese man stood, eyes shut, clutching his hand to his heart in temporary patriotic fervour. Can you imagine that happening in England? Or France? Or Italy?
Which is why this tournament is shaping up to be the best in World Cup history. It is not just the great games (did you see Brazil against Turkey?), or that the trains work, or that eight magnificent stadiums have been built in Japan alone, on time and to budget (at this point it is not even worth uttering the word Wembley). It is the life-affirming excitement of the locals for a game many of us have long since forgotten is meant to be fun. No doubt the souvenir T-shirts are already being printed up, complete with the logo “A time good bloody by had all”.