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Day 5: Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese
Joetsu Shinkansen to Omiya , 4:15 p.m.
Sometimes I forget to wear deodorant. Perhaps that's why the Japanese schoolgirls on the Tokkaido line local train I took earlier were giggling so much in my general direction. My daughter would love their uniforms -- white collared shirts, green plaid skirts, long blue or white socks and sensible shoes. As would my friends at "The Man Show." At the other end of the car, another group from the same school, a less conservative crowd, have customized their uniformed appearance and adopted the latest look -- dyed, shaggy, blondish hair, bronzed skin, pale lipstick, fake eyelashes and long white '80s style leg warmers, bunched around their ankles extending to their knees.
As teenage schoolboys in London, my friends and I used to mess around with our hair and uniforms as well and see what we could get away with. I think I remember making my mother slave over the sewing machine for hours, hemming in my unfashionable flared school trousers and turning them into "drainpipes." We reversed our school ties so the skinny part was at the front, tucking the fatter part into our shirts. We put so much gel in our spiky hair, you could actually feel the added weight of it on your head. This was late-'70s, early-'80s gel. We bought it at the hardware store. The soul boys wore white socks, the mods wore parka coats over their uniforms, the punks wore multiple studs in their ears. I made feeble attempts at all three. I certainly wasn't cool. But nor was I an epi, boffin or mong -- the lowest stops on the school food chain.
My point is, we looked like pratts. These teenagers also will be haunted by the photos.
Omiya Station, FIFA Help Desk , 4:45 p.m.
Apparently I have just missed the last media bus to Saitama Stadium. But wait a minute. There is mad communication occurring over walkie talkies, panicked looking young faces. "Come with me, sir, come with me, you must run!"
These amazing young people have persuaded the driver to make an unscheduled stop (no mean feat in Japan, I can tell you; there is no word for unscheduled in their language) at a traffic light in the city center to pick me up. One young man grabs my bag, his friend actually catches my glasses as they fall off my head, and they run me out of the station down some steps and hand me and my belongings off, relay-style, to two young women who sprint with me a good half mile to the traffic light. I am smiling through the pain, this is really quite ludicrous, I was entirely happy to get a taxi, but no, "You must cross now!" one of them screams at me. "The bus is coming!" I arrive on the other side of the street with ... oh, I don't know ... six minutes to spare. But that doesn't bother these kids, and it shouldn't. This for them is last minute, it's unprecedented, but, goddammit, they're doing their job. God love them.
Media Tribune, Saitama Stadium, 5:50 p.m.
I have witnessed some pretty great sporting events in my lifetime: Game 7s, Grand Slam five-setters, conference championships, bowl games, World Series, test matches, Cup finals and enough big football games to know how special this is going to be. I knew it the moment I took my seat. Sixty-five thousand Japanese fans, all, it seems, in their team's shirt, a sea of deep blue, a sea of beautiful people singing beautiful songs (two of their chants are by Scott Joplin and Verdi) and about 200 Belgians.
The pregame is like something out of Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun." The Japanese national anthem is played, and it is sung beautifully and with passion by the throng who, in unison, hold up the Japanese flag placed conveniently under each seat. Taki, to my right, has completely lost it. He wears a vintage 1970s Japan shirt, and he has already lost his voice with his "NIPPON, NIPPON" chants.
As the anthem ends and, right on cue (surprise, surprise), four Japanese Air Force jets swoop, somehow silently (I suppose underneath the noise of the crowd) so low across the stadium they seem almost at eye level, I have become Japanese. I am almost crying. This is the most beautiful show of patriotism I have ever seen: poetic, passionate, elegant, universally shared, not in your face, not showing off -- just a nation's pride in its own culture and achievement, in its improving football team, in hosting, albeit co-hosting, the world's biggest sporting event.
The occasion is powerful, beautiful and quite staggering. I might not see anything like it again. A cynic would say it is like a Japanese Nurenberg, and I do say that to Taki. He laughs, fortunately.
I turn and notice three men from South Korean television sitting to my left. They look terrified.
The taxi back to Omiya , 8:45 p.m.
It was that most elusive of things -- an epic game of football. It ends 2-2, but Japan, frankly, was robbed. Its second-half performance was electrifying. If the Japanese No. 5, Inamoto, is not good enough to play for Arsenal, I'll take him at Chelsea any day. His goal, as was Suzuki's, was special. And his second goal might have been the goal of the tournament ... had it not been inexplicably disallowed by the Croatian referee. Nakata was double-teamed out of the game, sometimes quadruple-teamed by the enormous Belgian five-man, sometimes six-man, midfield. The Belgians played extraordinarily unappealing football, matched only by the color of their uniforms, which I can only describe as bright tomato.
But Japan played physically, too. I just love Kazuyuki Toda, their hard, defensive midfielder -- he has a red mohawk, sort of caught in a David Beckham/Freddie Ljunberg identity crisis. In fact, only one of the Japanese players seems to have black hair -- their Brazilian naturalized Japanese citizen, Alessandro Santos.
After the game, Taki seems depressed. When Japan had a 2-1 lead, he thought that this would be the first-ever win for an Asian nation at the World Cup. Instead, it was Japan's first-ever point, second- and third-ever goals, and I tell him to look on the bright side. He agrees that we should go to a bar near Omiya station and watch the second half of South Korea's opener against Poland. He wants to root for Korea, he wants a win for Asia. I tell him the Korean guys next to me cheered both Belgian goals. This really pisses him off. I explain to him it's about the dynamics of power, it's like England and Ireland, or England and Scotland. We cheer for them, they would never cheer for us.
"I cheer for everyone" Taki replies.
"Even Germany?" I ask. "Get out of the taxi, now!"
"Tori Masa" a fine dining establishment in Omiya's red light district, 9:45
Well, I say red light district, but I'm not sure these girls are actually prostitutes. I think they are the ones who just get you to go to bars with them and then flirt with you and make you buy lots of drinks -- sort of like the girls in Los Angeles.
Their pimp is definitely nice enough. Taki asks him if he knows somewhere we can eat, drink and watch the Korea game and he takes us on a back-alley expedition to a charming yakitori joint. That's food on skewers.
This place really does look like something out of a "Karate Kid" movie, and despite the fact that tori means chicken, Taki decides on liver with scallions, tongue and pig belly yakitori, quail eggs, shishamo (kind of like sardines, which you eat whole, head and all) and, believe it or not, some chicken and asparagus. It is all, amazingly enough, delicious. We pour each other's Kirin, as is the custom, and cheer on Korea, with the rest of the establishment, as they beat Poland 2-0.
There is genuine excitement in the place for South Korea's and Asia's achievement. But that just makes me hate those Korean guys at the Japan game even more.
Masa San, the owner and head chef, a genial enough chap with sensationally bad teeth, sees Taki's credential and engages him in a conversation about the Japan game. He seems to know a lot about football, this guy. After looking at me and using his one English word, "hooligan," and laughing, he talks about the futility of the Japanese three-man defensive line's adoption of the offside trap in the second half. Mostly, though, they talk about the Japanese team's hair.
Omiya Station, 10:35 p.m.
Taki and I are surrounded by young, blue-shirted, face-painted Japanese fans, chanting, singing and dancing, having stormed out of the bars after South Korea's victory. They are violently chanting, "NI-KAN, KYOSAI, NI-KAN KYOSAI!" Taki laughs, explaining it means "Japan-Korea. Co-hosts!" That might be the sweetest football chant I've ever heard.
They spot Taki and me and our credentials, and approach us screaming. They are drunk but completely unthreatening, just extremely excited. One of them, a sweet-looking boy of about 17 underneath all that face paint, sees that my credential says "England" and goes nuts. I am now surrounded by his friends who are chanting "BECKHAM!" and "OWEN!" and, bizarrely, "SEAMAN!"
Taki takes my picture with a couple of them, and we leave for our train. "Hey, mister!" one of them shouts. "Beckham and Owen are going to explode!"
I assume he means against Argentina on Friday. Let's hope so.
Back in my room at the Pan-Pacific Hotel, Yokohama, 1 a.m.
I scan the web, reading the match reports from the China, Japan and South Korea games. Tonight, Asia won one, drew one and lost one, but there's a seismic shift taking place in world football, away from South America and Europe, towards Asia and Africa. You can just feel it.
Simon Barnes' match report in The Times of London is outstandingly good. So good I'll give you three excerpts. The first is about Nakata:
Their star man is Hidetoshi Nakata, who looks like one of the Seven Samurai -- the cool one who never speaks, but kills lots of chaps. James Coburn played him in "The Magnificent Seven," but the Japanese guy was cooler. Nakata never speaks either: and has the same air of cosmic self-possession.
The second describes the opening Belgian goal, which stunned the crowd:
The silence was shattered much as one shatters an antique vase. Japan had been playing for sharp, witty exchanges and sudden, darting through-balls: the Belgium defence showed a propensity to turn at around about the same speed that milk does.
The third is about Inamoto's glorious goal:
Who'd have thought it? The biggest goal so far in the first World Cup of the new millennium: and it was scored for Japan in Japan by a racy blond boy who plays for Arsenal. The geography of the known world seems to change on an almost hourly basis.
And I'm loving every minute of it.
Tomorrow, it's the boys in green again, Ireland, versus my old friend, Germany. Don't get me started.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.