By Trevor Kew

In the weeks leading up to Argentina’s visit to Japan for an October 8th friendly in Saitama, one might have been forgiven for thinking that Lionel Messi was going to be the only player on the pitch.

Sure, there may have been a few quiet mutterings here and there about Tevez or Higuain or the other millionaire superstars on the Argentine team.  But there was never a doubt that the real reason tickets to the game sold out within minutes of going on sale was Barcelona’s shaggy, speedy little striker whose day job is making talented La Liga defenders look like clumsy tools.

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But would he really come?  Mid-season friendlies are often unpopular among top players due to heavy club commitments.  The week before an international friendly often witnesses an untimely outbreak of sneezy coughs, sunburn and fingernail injuries.  Or hair injuries (a frequent problem for Argentina).

One of the problems Japanese soccer consistently faces is a lack of experience against quality European and South American opposition.  Japan is a long way from both of those places (check your atlas, it’s true) and so even when European or South American teams do visit, they tend to bring their second-string.  Last year in October, goalkeeper Craig Gordon was the only regular first-teamer to suit up for Scotland against the Samurai Blue.  I’m not sure if the guy who tends the grounds at Hampden Park got a game, but he may well have.

In the end, Japan rolled to a meaningless and bone-achingly dull 2-0 win.

Japanese, Argentine and Catalan fans drew their collective breath on Oct. 11, when Messi got crocked in a match against Atletico Madrid and had to be stretchered off.  An Argentine work colleague of mine, with whom I’d purchased tickets for the game, was beside himself.  But as the match drew near and the rosters were released, it became clear that Messi would travel to Japan, and on Oct. 8 that he would play up front alongside Milito and Tevez.  Whether this had anything to do with the absence due to injury of Drogba-arm-breaker/mad tackler Marcus Tulio (the “Tool”?) Tanaka is unknown.

The game itself was to be played at Saitama Stadium, a stunning 64,000-seat venue in a huge sprawling north Tokyo suburb which hosted a World Cup semifinal in 2002.  The only problem was that Saitama Stadium is at the absolute ends of the earth, unless you live in Saitama.  Which, to be fair, a lot of people do.

Two hours of train ride later, we’d made friends with a group of Japanese university students, all sporting Messi jerseys.  They’d travelled from Kyoto that day by bus, which takes seven hours.  Meeting an actual Argentine was a big thrill for them (as a boring old Canadian, I was of little interest) and I spent most of the trip translating a discussion about everyone’s favorite Argentine players, stretching back to the 1970s (two decades before these guys were born).  As we finally arrived at the stadium, one of the students told us that he was heading to Argentina in November, to study English.

Japan has a long history of superficially embracing foreign culture and foreign celebrities.  The first Westerners in the Land of the Rising Sun to attract a lot of attention were Catholic missionaries, though they sometimes found themselves in hot water (or boiling water) if they got over-enthusiastic.  Reggae has a big following in parts of Japan, despite Jamaica and Japan having little in common apart from being islands and being fairly close to one another in the dictionary. Tommy Lee Jones is on coffee adverts everywhere.

But perhaps nowhere is this fascination with foreign culture more evident than in soccer, a sport which since the mid-1990s has continued to captivate increasing numbers of young Japanese men and women.  David Beckham’s arrival for the World Cup in 2002 unleashed a flurry of interest (and a flurry of bad imitation hairstyles, I’d imagine), as did the annual influx of stars for the World Club Cup.

And so – after a brief episode of casual, friendly racism where I was told that I couldn’t enter the Japanese fans section, despite sporting a 2006 Japan jersey and pleading that the closest I’d been to Argentina was a Patagonian steak house in Berlin – I found myself in an Argentina section full of Japanese people in Messi shirts.  The only person singing the visitors’ national anthem was the poor guy with the microphone, who probably should have at least been given a little music as backup.  My colleague sang the last verse.

The match itself was a cracking affair, with plenty of chances on both sides.  Since relative success at the World Cup, Japan has continued to gain confidence and believe that it is possible to win matches through keeping the ball and attacking, rather than giving the ball to your opponents and engaging in ninety minutes of desperate defending.  While Argentina did not play particularly well in the match, Japan’s new approach under Alberto Zaccheroni looked fresh and exciting, and they thoroughly deserved their 1-0 victory.  Eiji Kawashima was excellent as always in goal and Shinji Okazaki spent most of the game making Argentine defenders trip over their own feet.

Although Messi didn’t quite show his top form in the match, there were still several dizzying runs and deft touches to awe the crowd.  And from what I’ve heard, he left Japan a winner in other ways, receiving several big endorsement deals that are probably worth a few yen.

As we left the stadium, none of the Argentina fans, strangely, seemed all that disappointed, probably because their actual country had just beaten Argentina.  None, that is, except my colleague, who was hovering somewhere between blinding rage and existential despair.

“Ah well,” he said, cracking a wry smile at last.  “I never thought I’d see my country come to Japan to play football.”

I nearly added “and lose” but caught myself in time.

“Yeah, and we got to see Messi,” I said instead, and thus survived the very long train ride home.

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