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Day 2: Come on, you boys in green
Yokohama, June 1, 8 a.m.
I do not need to see the rest of the world. The breakfast buffet at the Pan Pacific Hotel is the finest on planet Earth. It is presented and served by a cast of hundreds -- a team that greets you at the door, a team that takes you to your table, a tag team that brings you coffee and milk (separate jobs, apparently) and then presents a synchronized gesture (6.0 in my book, using the figure skating scale) to point you toward the food stations. And they are multiple. An omelette station manned by five, a roast meat carving section, an entire Japanese smorgasbordasai (made that up), a juicer station (fresh-squeezed, green apple juice so good I actually gasped), a continental breakfast table with every cereal, pastry and sliced fruit known to man and then, the closer, a hot breakfast line with scrambled eggs, bacon and hot dogs!
Am I really this excited about breakfast or is it just that France -- yes. my friends, as in the French -- lost to Senegal last night in the opening game of the World Cup?
Today I am traveling about 200 miles northeast to Niigata on the northern coast of Honshu to see Ireland play its first match against Cameroon. These guys have been through a lot recently with the controversial departure from training camp of their captain, midfield general and one world-class player, Roy Keane of Manchester United. I love Cameroon, I have money on them, and I love the way they play football. Soccernet, furthermore, is reporting that their brilliant right midfielder/defender, Geremi, is on his way from Real Madrid to my beloved Chelsea. I want him to be stonking good. But my heart is with Ireland.
I am of Gaelic blood. Via saff east London.
The JR Tokaido Line local to Tokyo Station, 9:26 a.m.
With my Starbucks in hand and my USA Today open to the sports page (once again, I'm all about the local culture), I could be strap-hanging on the 6 in New York City. But wait a minute, there are some subtle differences. Complete silence. A complete lack of racial diversity. Very clever newspaper folding.
The Japanese just don't make a lot of noise. But then again, based on how quiet the game sounded last night, nor do the South Koreans. The Japanese do, however, spend a lot of time staring at the impressive screens on their cell phones. They might be messaging, they might be playing games or they might be watching cartoons, I'm not quite sure. They do, though, appear to have an unhealthy obsession with animated characters. They are everywhere, little ones dangling from phones, big ones presenting the weather on the NHK national newscast last night, a pantheon of alienlike creatures on almost every page, advertising and editorial, of all the newspapers open all around me.
Wait a minute, I take it back about the diversity -- we just stopped at Kawasaki (not making it up) and a guy wearing a kilt, the Irish flag painted on his face and Kermit the frog in a Glasgow Celtic shirt on his shoulders, gets on at the other end of the carriage.
The younger Japanese all around me, men and women, are all reading the sports pages about the France-Senegal game. I wonder what they made of it.
"The Senegalese are called Lions, but Haji Diouf, a cub of just 21, moves with the stealth and surprise of an eel." That was Rob Hughes in the International Herald Tribune, but the Japanese could relate to that, they could picture it in animation.
(Note to self: Must practice Japanese art of vertical newspaper folding. More on this later.)
Getting off the train, I pass the Irish guy in the kilt and Kermit. He's actually Japanese.
Tokyo Station, 10:15 a.m.
You have to love the Irish, and I sometimes wear green plaid pants so I love them more. Thousands of them are here. I'm reminded of the Harry Potter books, the scenes at King's Cross station when the wizarding families bring their alien children amongst the confused muggles to send them back on the train to Hogwarts (now there's a reference a real sportswriter wouldn't make). The Japanese do not know what to make of all this. They are not the dreaded hooligans; there is absolutely nothing threatening about them. Half their faces painted green, jester hats and green sombreros, kilts and Irish soccer shirts, a sea of green, orange and white pasty skin, dancing and singing and laughing their way toward the trains. Dozens of children and grandparents are amongst the exquisitely ugly throng; the oddest shapes and sizes, sunburn, lesions, mild deformities and violent facial ticks.
But they can sing.
- Come on, you boys in green,
Don't need that #@%*, Roy Keane
Come on, you boys,
Come on, you boys in green.
And they do. Again and again and again and again and ...
The Asahi 97 Shinkansen to Niigata, 10:45 a.m.
The Shinkansen bullet train I board at Tokyo makes Amtrak's Acela look like the 6 subway line to the Bronx. It is smooth and silver on the outside, pristine and luxurious inside, beautifully lit and ergonomically designed. The ride is ridiculously smooth. There are no unscheduled stops, we reach every station on the two-hour, 20-minute ride to Niigata precisely, to the minute, on time, and there is complimentary green tea service.
This seems appropriate, but thoroughly confuses the hordes of merry (a k a drunk) Irish fans on almost every other seat on the 15-car train. They want bacon, runny eggs and more beer, at least that's what the ones behind me ask for, thoroughly confusing the shy, perhaps terrified, staccato-bowing, retreating attendant who's passing out the hot towels (which the drunken Irishman in front of me, one of several dressed as Leprechauns, tries to eat).
They sing for the next two hours, football songs, pop songs, songs I can't write about here. Five minutes from Niigata, with its "Big Swan" stadium, majestic, in the distance, the singing stops and they stare, perhaps as their forefathers upon the silence of a verdant pre-battlefield.
- ... and the old triangle,
goes jingle, jangle,
along the banks of the Royal Canal
It is one voice ... and a fine one too. A poignant reminder of how far away they are from home. How much they love their country. And how they've all had far too much to drink.
Niigata Stadium, The Big Swan, 3:25 p.m.
I hear 7,000 Irish fans are expected at the stadium, but it feels like more. From my seat in the media tribune, they are away to the left, a swathe of green and pink, and they sing their national anthem so beautifully -- you just had to be there. The relationship between the team and their fans is tangible and, frankly, moving. As soon as they came on the field to warm up, they were greeted as champions. As I watch through my Zeiss binoculars, Niall Quinn, their veteran striker and leader, walks toward their end and applauds them for their support. It is heartfelt, and they chant his name. Perhaps I imagine the moisture in his eyes.
Away to the right, a small congregation of Cameroonians, as many women as men, drum and dance to the beat of African music in traditional costume. I raise my binoculars. They're doing a butt dance. The Japanese around them do not join in.
From the start the plucky Irish lads are overpowered by the enormous men from Cameroon. With the continuous beat of their drums behind them, they outflank their opponents, the Irish midfield falling back to cover its defense. The Cameroonians have them where they want them. Even in possession, the Irish midfield is too deep to link up with their forwards, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, who chase forlornly for clearings amongst the trees all around them.
After 18 minutes, the excellent Irish 'keeper, Shay Given, makes a save and I make a note: "Given save on 18 changes match?"
But on 39 minutes, in an almost mirror image of Senegal's goal against France the night before, Samuel Eto'o power wiggles down the right, leaves Steve Staunton sprawling and Patrick Mboma puts it in falling backward from no more than eight yards.
I make another note: "first two goals in 2002 WC scored by Africans on their asses."
The Irish fans, though, are still in full song and high spirits as the second half starts. They know how hard their boys will fight. And now, playing right to left, Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland in the center of Ireland's midfield seem magnetically drawn to their increasingly hopeful and responsive support. The two are feeding off each other. I'm not sure that television can tell that story, but you can feel it in the stadium as it starts to spread throughout the Irish lines. Up front, Duff is starting to run with the ball, while Staunton and Shay Given, a fifth defender with his decisive speed off the line and quick distribution to his wing backs, are leading from the rear. And it is down the left that the Irish are doing their best work through Kilbane and Harte, and it is the Leeds man, Harte, who crosses the ball accurately into the box, just cleared by the seemingly 8-foot-2 Kalla.
But only as far as Matt Holland.
The next three seconds are in slow motion. Matt Holland has endured a tough season, relegated from the English Premier League with his club side Ipswich. In qualifying, he scored a couple of superb goals from long range, and that was probably in the minds of at least some of the 7,000 or so to our left who gasped collectively in anticipation as his right foot swung all 152 pounds of Matt Holland into the champagne emblazoned adidas Fevernova.
As the ball rippled the perfectly white back o' the net, the green roar was epic, and almost primeval.
As was my own. Screw journalistic impartiality! I'm on vacation.
The game ends 1-1 (so Given's save was crucial). The Irish might have won it had the woodwork not saved a curling 30-yarder from Robbie Keane with six minutes left. But all around, it is a great result for the boys in green, and a deserved excorcism, however, temporary, of the ever-present ghost of Roy Keane.
As I look to my left, my excitement for the jubilant Irish fans involved in a mutual lovefest with their jubilant and emotional heroes is tempered by a sobering thought.
It is going to be a loud, drunken 2½-hour train journey back to Tokyo.
Asahi No. 356 to Tokyo Station, 9:40 p.m.
As news drifts through the train from the other group E match in Sapporo, where the German goals are pouring in against the hapless Saudi Arabians, spirits dampen quickly. It ends up 8-0, and it will be tough for the Irish to beat them on goal difference now. Assuming Cameroon will also thump the Saudis, the Irish will need a result against Germany on Wednesday in Ibaraki to stand a chance of qualifying. No easy task.
No one can spoil a party like the Germans.
The Pan Pacific Hotel, Yokohama, 12:45 a.m.
I watch the news in my room, lots of footage of Japanese riot police in full gear kicking the crap out of a group of pathetic volunteer "hooligans" in an exercise for tomorrow's first England game against Sweden in Saitama.
I fall asleep reading the Japan Times about the Queen's Golden Jubilee and the celebrations planned to celebrate her 50 years on the throne in London. While over on CNN International there is a tribute show to Larry King's mere 45 years in broadcasting. This seems more than a little disrespectful to the crown.
I have folded my newspaper in the Japanese manner. You should try this tomorrow. Fold the paper vertically down the middle, both front to back and back to the front, so that there's a clear crisp line down the middle then ...
I'm too tired to explain it to you. Tomorrow, it's the first Eng-er-land game versus Sweden.
God Save The Queen and all that. Let's hope she is not embarrassed by her subjects in Saitama.Michael Davies, a native of London, is executive producer of ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." He'll be filing five diary entries per week from the World Cup for Page 2.