Football at London 2012: An Olympic Odyssey

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

An absence of sneers and jeers, a lack of cynicism and an overriding sense of tolerance and euphoria. Following the Japanese men’s team in the 2012 Olympic football tournament showed me that passionate support doesn’t have to be aggressive or divisive, just heartfelt…

As a London resident, I was well aware of the irony when, on the even of the opening ceremony, I left the capital and travelled 400 miles north to Glasgow in search of the Olympic spirit.

You see, my focus was to be the football tournament, one of the less celebrated events at the Games but, nonetheless, my sport.

Admittedly, I had never taken the Olympic football competition seriously before this year but, when a friend of mine suggested I join him as he covered the progress of the Japanese men’s side for media sources in Tokyo, I decided to take the opportunity to tour the country and, in the process, attempt to understand the uneasy marriage between the world’s most popular sport and it’s most famous sporting event.

As I travelled from Hampden Park to St James’ Park and then to the hastily rebadged City of Coventry Stadium, I discovered that the enthusiastic fervour of the past fortnight had eaten away at the cynicism which so often lies beneath the atmosphere at football grounds. Among the crowds in all three stadiums, I witnessed elation, tears, frustration, passion and respect – a microcosm of the intense emotion that has been spilling over, night after night, in all of the Olympic venues during the course of the Games.

Of course, noise levels were determined by the enthusiasm of the fans for the teams in action, which explains some of the subdued, half-empty stands we have seen on the TV coverage of the tournament. But I quickly discovered that, in Japan, I had chosen the right team to follow.

Thousands of football-obsessed characters had journeyed across two continents to back their national side in these Olympic Games and, in fancy dress and fine voice, they formed a partisan brigade in each stadium around which the rest of the crowd rallied. Those local spectators who came through the turnstiles as neutrals ended the night clapping, singing or jumping along to the constant chanting, coordinated perfectly by tireless drummers and men with megaphones.

My friend, a J-League correspondent, pointed out to me that the men at the centre of this group were the fan leaders of several club sides in Japan, gathered together to form a sort-of ‘Ultras’ brigade for the national team and it was in their direction that I instinctively turned when the national anthem of Japan was played before each game. Ahead of the final group match, against Honduras in Coventry, however, my attention was quickly arrested by the sound of a single, wavering voice behind me.

At the end of the next row back stood an old Japanese man, chest puffed out, his distinguished features offset by a pair of spectacles held on by a neck cord. He wore the national shirt, just like the eleven compatriots lined up on the pitch beside the rising sun on the nation’s flag, and he glowed with benign patriotic pride – unabashed, unguarded and completely unaware of the dozens of locals who had turned to watch him.

At first they jerked around in surprise at his strained voice, then they gawped in fascination and, finally, they applauded as he came to the end of his rendition, like the audience on a TV talent show who have just discovered a chubby, West Country carpet fitter with a voice like Marvin Gaye.

Among the gormless, I shuddered with the sheer intensity of the moment, quietly moved as the national anthem of a country with which I have no connection played out in a city I had never previously set foot in. Essentially, this was just a man singing his national anthem before a football match, but the absurd emotion of the moment seemed to neatly encapsulate the atmosphere in which all the matches I witnessed on this trip were played. Football was happening in front of us, but there was something unquestionably Olympic going on in the stands. There was an absence of sneers and jeers, a lack of cynicism and an overriding sense of tolerance and enthusiasm.

One man who had spent the minutes leading up to kick-off bellowing ‘Gee-Bee!’ as loudly as he could during the Japanese supporters’ chants, ended the game clapping along to a version of ‘Hey Jude’ that replaced the title words with ‘Nippon.’ Comical, yes, but uplifting all the same.

On the pitch, Japan’s players responded in style. The tactical nous of this Under-23s side was apparent from the start, in the pressing game with which they continually unsettled the favourites Spain in their first group-stage encounter. While the entire team worked themselves into the ground to prevent the side that currently dominates international football from passing through their ranks, it was the intelligent chasing of their centre-forward Kensuke Nagai that particularly caught the eye.

The Nagoya Grampus striker can reportedly run 50 metres in a time that might make the track and field selectors take notice, and he used his acceleration to devastating effect as he closed down the Spanish centre-backs, Javi and Inigo Martinez, time and time again. The pairing were caught in possession on so many occasions, it eventually became embarrassing.

Even after Inigo Martinez was dismissed for a professional foul, as he and his team-mates looked increasingly uncomfortable under pressure, Spain continued to stick to their game-plan, playing the ball out from the back at a fairly leisurely tempo. By the end of the game, Japan’s tactics had proved so successful that the Hampden Park crowd were wondering how the scoreline remained at just 1-0.

Chance after chance went begging, but such profligacy in front of goal did not prevent those local supporters who had turned up in hope of seeing a Spanish masterclass from staying behind after the final whistle to give the Japanese players a standing ovation.

Three days later, it was the football-loving people of Newcastle who arrived with Spain’s stars the focal point of their interest. But before the likes of Jordi Alba, Juan Mata and Iker Muniain took to the field at St. James’ Park for their vital game against Honduras, the crowd were treated to another Japanese victory, albeit a slightly less thrilling one than I had witnessed in Glasgow.

Once again, the Samurai Blue support refused to allow the locals to remain neutral. A young fan enamoured himself and his nation to the Leazes End by unveiling a Japan flag with the words: “AWAY THE LADS” emblazoned across it.

Nobody sought to point out the slight inaccuracy of the Geordie motto, instead they stood and applauded, before nailing their colours to the Japanese mast. The extra support did them no harm, either, as a 1-0 win over Morocco ensured qualification for the knockout stage of the competition. Nagai, less impressive in his all-round performance on this occasion, sealed victory with a perfectly weighted late lob over an advancing Moroccan goalkeeper which looped high into the air before dropping down onto the line and bouncing into the net. Industrious in Glasgow; deadly accurate in Newcastle – here was a man who knew how to please a crowd. And he wasn’t the only one.

In Japan, it is traditional and compulsory for a team to walk to all four stands at the end of each game, no matter what the result, and bow to the spectators. The gesture, when made in Britain, to a largely local crowd, had a greatly magnified effect. Refreshing and humble, tactically astute, technically gifted and tenacious footballers from a far away land – there was so much novelty in this team and in the atmosphere surrounding their matches that it felt somehow anachronistic.

We’ve all become so au fait with overseas football, with the leading lights of the European leagues and the prospective stars emerging from South America. Names like Neymar, Hulk, Alba and Muniain were familiar to the people in the stands, even if they hadn’t seen them play in the flesh before.

In watching Japan, however, the Olympic football crowds experienced a team of unknown names playing good football, defeating the pre-tournament favourites and winning over the locals along the way… I didn’t think I would witness that in 2012, but it felt good.

Then, as I rose from my seat to stretch my legs between the two matches at the City of Coventry Stadium, there was one more surprise in store for me. Behind a row of seats a young Japan fan was bent over, picking up pieces of burst balloon and litter from the floor.

I recognised him because, 20 minutes earlier, he had been marching up and down the stairwell with a megaphone and a flag draped around his shoulders practically ordering the rest of the crowd to join in with the Japanese chanting.

“Hang on a minute,” I said, nudging my friend. “These ‘Ultras’ clean up after themselves?!”

Dominic Bliss is founder and editor of TheInsideLeft. You might decide to follow his personal Twitter account @Dominic_Bliss but if you only have time to click ‘Follow’ once today, he would highly recommend that you choose to keep up-to-date with all the latest from this wonderful new journal by following @theinsidelefty
Photography: Sean Carroll

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