One boy was about six years old, the other about four. They were waiting with their mother at Osaka airport for the bus. Both were Japanese and were wearing England shirts with the number seven and "Beckham" stencilled on the back.
That Beckham was big in Japan was well known but it was still an unexpected sight. Four days later, such sightings go without comment. They are so commonplace. On Sunday, at the Universiade Stadium, thousands were similarly attired, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Though there were occasional sightings of "Scholes" or even "Gascoigne" most, if they were not wearing shirts honouring David Beckham, had ones with "Owen" on the back.
Yet, while Michael Owen is popular, Beckham is a phenomenon. The biggest roars of the afternoon were not for the goals in England's 2-2 draw with Cameroon but for the ballwork skills by Beckham before and after the match.
Several local magazines have pictures of Beckham on the front of their current editions, with one carrying a piece comparing Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron, his Manchester United teammate and Argentine opponent, written by David Meek, the United correspondent of the Manchester Evening News. Though Meek is a man of many talents, one assumes his words have been translated into Japanese.
The Football Association hopes the enthusiasm for Beckham, Owen and their clubs could be England's 24th player in this World Cup. Brazil are also very popular, for the usual reasons and because many Brazilians – including the 1994 World Cup-winning captain, Dunga – have played in the national J League but the evidence so far suggests England are more so. Since the draw was made, the FA has been building on this support with a charm offensive in cities where England will play. Officials were delighted to hear, in Sunday's match, chants of "England, England" which were noticeably different from the more customary alcohol-fuelled "Ing-ger-lund".
Paul Barber, the FA's commercial director, said the FA had been taken aback when officials came to Japan after the draw was made, and found Argentina might have more support than England in the crucial 7 June tie because of long-standing Japanese- Argentine footballing links. The FA responded by forging fraternal links at government and grassroots level and pursuing an open-door policy with the Japanese media. The work appears to have succeeded.
The sight of thousands of Japanese fans in Beckham- labelled England shirts also provided a riposte to Peter Kenyon, the chief executive of Manchester United, who claimed in the spring that Beckham being England captain provided "no commercial value to United". Mr Barber seemed on surer ground when he said yesterday: "It is a two-way street. David's good for England and being England captain's good for David. The great thing about playing in a World Cup is that you are exposed to millions of people. In any sphere of life that sort of exposure is worth a lot. Equally, the level of support we got here and throughout the tournament comes from having icon players like David, Michael and many of the others."
Another happy organisation is Umbro. It sold plenty of England shirts on the day and will shift many more. With football shirts retailing in Japan for as much as £80 it is a lucrative market.
The cash value of the Beckham brand to the England team has not been calculated. But in the case of Manchester United it has. His new contract stipulates that on top of his £70,000-a-week salary, he will get a further £20,000 from a unique image rights clause.
Eugen Beer of marketing consultants BD Communications said: "Beckham himself is like a can of Ronseal. He is this good, honest, decent, absurdly good-looking guy."Reuse content