What a moment, and what a night that was!
I never normally write articles about personal experiences much, as I normally like to visit places and summarise them from a neutral viewpoint for the benefit of readers on this website and beyond, but the event I had witnessed last night is well worth writing about. Purely because it represented a historical moment in Japanese football history, seeing them qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. For me though, it was more than that; it was a pure, total spectacle. Where do I start?
To set the scene, I was at an English summer camp in Nagano at the start of summer 2017, where I met a great guy named Lewis, who is also from the U.K. We bonded very quickly over those four days, and when we both discovered that we love football (or soccer as it's called here in Japan), we vowed to go and see a Japanese football game together for fun! He is a supporter of Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan, seeing games whenever he can. For me, seeing any kind of football game is a dream. I haven't seen a game since I was a media match day assistant at Derby County Football Club in the city that I studied back home in England, and I remember every atmosphere being a dream, as English football fans are some of the best in the world, especially in the league that Derby County plays in, which is the EFL Championship for anyone wanting to check them out. Those were the days.
I would sit around yearning for that moment to come for me to see a game in Japan, and finally... out of nowhere, I get a text message from Lewis. He had got us tickets for the huge Samurai Blue (Japanese National Football team) game against Australia... a must win game. Japan, if they lose, could be in massive trouble in terms of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If they win however, they make history and qualify. What a night this could be I thought, and for only ¥3100, it was a steal! It was a sell-out. Later on that night, I heard from a friend that tickets had skyrocketed online to a phenomenal figure of over ¥100,000. Maybe the fans knew something I didn't at the time, this would be one of modern Japanese football's finest moments. And I was there.
I set off on match day towards Saitama at around 4pm from my home city of Atsugi in Kanagawa, and it was to take around two hours and ten minutes if I played my cards right. The location: Urawa Red's home stadium, Saitama Stadium 2002. Being a fan of football in general, I knew of Urawa Reds, and the stadium itself playing a big part in the 2002 Japan/Korea joint World Cup fifteen years ago. With a capacity of 60,000 people, I knew it would be a big place, but when I got there I was incredibly stunned by the size and scope of the stadium itself. Before that though, I met my friend Lewis, stopped off for yakisoba and a nice cold Kirin beer to appease my stomach on the short walk to the stadium. And there it was! Amongst all of the blue that we were following, the stadium emerged! After having to go through two rounds of security and bag checks on the way into the ground (which was fantastically observed and monitored, with no intimidating behaviour from the gate guards), we were allowed in with our beer and snacks, which is a first as the football grounds in the U.K do not allow this, aside from drinking inside a concourse away from the seating area. After a brief pitstop for Lewis to put on his Japan jersey over his business attire, we headed into the stadium.
Now I remember the first time I went to a football game, and I remember the rush that you get when you emerge from the tunnel into where the pitch is, and into where the fans are. This bought back a lot of nostalgic feelings. Heading into the fanzone, full of Japanese people jumping up and down, chanting, and waving these blue bags full of air around in unison, it hit me right in the chills department. I was stood aghast, full of joy, admiring the stadium and the electric atmosphere. I just could not believe where I was standing, and I could not wait for this game to start.
After befriending a few fans all around us (who wanted to be a part of every photo and video I took, which was awesome!), the game started. After a slow start, the resolute Australian team was broken down by a pass by Yuto Nagatomo, whose threaded aerial ball landed at the feet of Takuma Asano, who had already left the Kangaroo's backline rooted to the spot, and he cooly slotted home the first goal of the night. It went delirious inside the stadium! The celebrations were insane, and with it being all standing, it got a little crazy, although nothing too heavy like I was used to seeing back in the English leagues. Everyone here was incredibly well behaved, but celebrated wildly at Asano's cool as ice finish. What a moment! But things still weren't 100%. We needed another goal.
Roll on the second half. Me and Lewis had befriended some fans behind us, as well as a Dutch guy who was incredibly generous, buying us three (yes...three) pints of chu-hi to enjoy the game with. I was getting incredibly buzzed and a little rowdy, but it seemed to fit with the atmosphere around me. Every chant was easy to learn and incredibly well driven home, especially by the fans stood on the sides of barriers with giant megaphones, who constantly shout at the crowd to keep singing when there is a lull. There was never a quiet moment. It got even louder when that second goal went in, and along with it, Japan headed to Russia.
The moment was a little blurred as I remembered talking to my new friends beside me, because all of a sudden, a shot from 25 yards from player Yosuke Ideguchi thunders into the top right hand corner, way above the keepers reach, at rocket speed. The entire stadium erupts!
82 minutes in and 2-0 up could only mean one thing. Japan had to go through. Celebrations were ferocious. I was here. I was here I kept thinking. It was unbelievable. Fast forward eight minutes and that was it. JAPAN HAD QUALIFIED!!! Some fans behind me were already buying tickets to Russia. The occasion was joyous; fans would give out high fives to others walking past, there were countless people hugging and screaming, and me and my friend Lewis had a group of Japanese fans thanking us for coming, which was an incredible thing to say. I thanked them for the opportunity, because I discovered so much being in that stadium that night. One thing was that Japanese fans are some of the best in the world. Their love for the game is unrivalled, and at the same time, their respect for the opposition and the football spectacle itself. They made the atmosphere electric, wild yet safe and family friendly. During Australia's national anthem at the start of the game, they cheered and applauded. Some fans from England should take note, that is how you respect the game.
After the players paraded around the pitch at full time to thank the supporters for their energy and ferocious following, I catch a glimpse of my hero Keisuke Honda, who didn't play tonight and was benched, which I found incredibly trippy. I'm never normally star-struck by individuals, but the sight of Honda, Kagawa and also Shinji Okazaki made me believe for a second that this was all a dream. But I pinched myself, and stared into the Saitama night sky, past the stadium lights, and looked up at the giant television screen that announces that Japan have made it to the World Cup.