By: Trevor Kew
Just over two weeks ago, I found myself in an interesting situation.
It was June 14th and I had been in South Africa less than thirty-six hours. Having attended Ghana and Serbia’s match at Loftus Versfeld on the 13th in a jetlagged haze, I had logged some serious sleep the night before at my choice of accomodation, a converted horse stable in the rural district of Kameeldrift north of Pretoria (heat provided by a wood stove). Keen to watch all three matches on the 14th at a venue with people and beer rather than horses (and beer), I caught a lift into the northern suburb of Hatfield, still a little apprehensive about my first solo encounter with urban South Africa.
Hatfield looks like pretty much any average High Street in England and any average main street in the United States (in fact, perhaps much nicer). It is safe to walk around any time of day or night, it is home to a university and, for the World Cup, they’ve set up a large screen in a square surrounded with bars. Unsurprisingly, I managed not to get mugged with relative ease.
But it was with more than a little trepidation that I sat down in the sun at a picnic table in the square with a cold Castle beer for the second match of the day: Japan vs. Denmark. For one thing, as a Canadian, I am faced with the fact that my national team may not qualify for the World Cup until global warming heats up and ice hockey becomes extinct. And so, at least for the time being, I’m forced into the unfortunate situation of supporting my two temporary homelands: England, where I lived for three and half years, and Japan, where I have lived for the past two years. I say unfortunate, because you all know of England’s tragic tendency to crumble at the World Cup (although frequently with assistance from poor referees). Japan, in case you don’t know, proved more than a little self-destructive in their warm-up games, registering three own-goals in two matches at one point (two by Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Japan’s clumsy excuse for a central defender) and demonstrating extraordinary attacking impotence, such as their 0-0 draw with world football minnows Zimbabwe. Coming into the tournament, they had also never won a World Cup match outside Japan.
That day, as I sat in Hatfield Square, with Japan set to face one of the world’s best in Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, I had additional cause for concern. In Hatfield Square, there were several hundred Cameroonians and South Africans supporting Cameroon (one of the strangest things for me at this World Cup has been the way that African countries all support one another. Imagine an Englishman supporting Italy or a Brazilian rooting for Argentina. Not bloody likely.) blowing their vuvuzelas wildly, sporting the green jersey of the Indomitable Lions and waving their flags. There was even a large contingent of overly-friendly Algerian guys who’d been in town for their team’s first match against Slovenia shouting “Vive l’Algerie! Vive le Cameroon!” and trying to take photographs with every single person in the square.
And so I felt just a bit isolated in my 2006 blue Japan jersey and white Japanese scarf when I jumped up after Keisuke Honda opened the scoring against the run of play. Luckily, as a white Canadian guy, I think people were at first simply just confused (several asked
Photo from fOTOGLIF
me if I was Serbian or French). When they found out that I was actually supporting Japan, I think they were happy more than anything to have someone to cheer against.
“Cameroon 2, Japan 1,” said a grinning Algerian gentleman after I explained in shoddy French why I was cheering for Japan.
Amazingly, despite the Samurai Blue being under attack for most of the ninety minutes, they held on for the 1-0 victory. I looked over at the Cameroon supporters. They did not look happy. But about two minutes after the final whistle, the music started and they decided to all have a party, while the Algerian guys took photographs.
With Holland and Denmark in Japan’s group, I didn’t expect to see much more out of the Samurai Blue. I’d booked tickets for the Japan-Denmark final group match and after watching Japan play the long ball against Cameroon despite their strikers being dwarfed by the Cameroonian defenders, I didn’t hold much hope for Japan’s chances against the towering Danes, even when it became apparent that the Japan-Denmark clash would determine the second qualifying spot for Group E.
When June 24th finally arrived, no one could have predicted that Japan would produce their best-ever World Cup performance, scoring two early stunning free-kick goals and a late Shinji Okazaki goal off the counterattack after incredible individual work by Honda. Patrick Newell, an American who has lived in Japan and supported their soccer team for more than eighteen years, told me that he had never seen Japan play a match like it. His seventeen-year-old daughter Kana – half-Japanese, half-American – never stopped smiling for the entire ninety minutes. The goalkeeper Kawashima was brilliant. Yoshito Okubo was fiesty as ever. Tanaka and Kanazawa actually managed to avoid scoring on their own net.
And then, against Paraguay in the Round of 16, Japan lost in a shootout after one of the most tedious matches of the World Cup so far, where they reverted back into a typical defensive shell.
As a Canadian Japan fan, perhaps I shouldn’t have a say. But in the spirit of this tournament, where Algerians and South Africans support Cameroon, I want to congratulate the Japanese team on their accomplishments in this World Cup but also to hope that the skill and speed that the world saw them display against Denmark will be allowed greater freedom to flourish in Brazil 2014.