How our fans went on a rampage of politeness and conquered Japan

Saturday in Sapporo: The morning after the victory before: Richard Lloyd Parry parties with England's new best friends
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When people in Sapporo recall England's victory over Argentina, and the scenes that followed it in the early hours of yesterday morning, there are several remarkable memories that will come to mind. The first will be the size of the crowds – 10,000 or more jubilant football supporters, dancing, singing, and drinking in a quiet and rather conservative city. The second will be the good naturedness of the occasion. For all the noise and high spirits there was not a single scuffle or thrown punch. But the most astonishing thing about the crowd was not its size or character, but its composition. Of the crowd of jubilant England supporters, some three-quarters were Japanese.

When people in Sapporo recall England's victory over Argentina, and the scenes that followed it in the early hours of yesterday morning, there are several remarkable memories that will come to mind. The first will be the size of the crowds – 10,000 or more jubilant football supporters, dancing, singing, and drinking in a quiet and rather conservative city. The second will be the good naturedness of the occasion. For all the noise and high spirits there was not a single scuffle or thrown punch. But the most astonishing thing about the crowd was not its size or character, but its composition. Of the crowd of jubilant England supporters, some three-quarters were Japanese.

They had the scarves and shirts and even those in the blue Argentina strip were shouting for England. They had a few words of footballing English ("one-nil", "Beckham", "I love England"). But only a few of them had been inside the Sapporo Dome for the match itself, and many of them, I suspect, had little or no interest in football or in England a month ago.

Yesterday was the pivot on which the reputation of England football supporters in Japan turned – from amok berserkers intent only on destruction to the unexpected heroes of the 2002 World Cup. And as they sleepily left the city after the excitement of the night before, Sapporo watched them go with, well, regret.

"There were so many reports in the newspapers about the English hooligans and what they were going to be like," said a 64-year-old man named Mitsuharu Sakaki . "The image we had was of violent attacks, and that kind of thing. And yet when they came here, they were quite gentlemanly." All over the city, people were feeling the same way.

Expectations had become so abysmally low in the run-up to Friday's match, that it would have been almost impossible not to surpass them. Since the war, Japan has become a country dominated – militarily and politically – by America, but it still retains an affection for British culture and tradition. And yet in the past three months, the familiar images of double-decker buses, tea and Beatrix Potter have been overlaid by more recent footage of the hooligan violence in the French World Cup of 1998 and in the Low Countries in Euro 2000.

Hooligan hysteria took many forms. A local councillor in one town warned that given "the exceptional mood of the event", Japan faced "the possibility of unwanted babies conceived by foreigners who rape our women". Inn-keepers refused to take bookings from foreigners at the time of sensitive matches. And nowhere was the fear greater than in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido.

It was the Hokkaido police who prepared for the arrival of football fans not only with new riot shields but with special web guns firing entangling nets. Fears about a lack of detention cells led them to charter a passenger ferry, that they planned to use as an improvised prison ship. Everything movable and throwable was removed from the streets of Sapporo and from the reception areas of hotels – bicycles, rubbish bins, ashtrays and potted plants. And on Friday night they mounted what seems to have been the largest football policing operation of all time.

At an average international football match in Britain, 400 police will be on duty. At January's game between England and Germany in Munich there were 2,000 of them. But in Sapporo, there were 7,000 officers mobilised around the city, including 1,400 reinforcements. In parts of the city, they were literally two to the yard, delivering instructions through megaphones, and waving the flashing red batons which in Japan are an emblem of authority. And yet in the whole city, among the 8,000 England supporters, there were just four incidents. Three men were detained for ticket touting, and one for not carrying his passport with him. "There's more than that in my village in a week," said Ron Hogg, the assistant chief constable of Durham, who is heading the British police contingent at the World Cup. "To be honest we never thought that this tournament was high-risk. But we never thought that it was this low-risk."

Not only has there been no trouble but – weirdest of all – the passing of the England caravan appears to have left Japan in better shape than it was before. Despite the presence of 8,000 football tourists, the British Embassy reports a lower than usual number of calls from people with minor consular emergencies such as as lost passports or wallets. Far from the smouldering ruins which many in Sapporo had been expecting, the city was cleaner than usual yesterday. "It's rather strange," said one of a group of three ladies who were passing by on litter patrol. "It's usually much dirtier than this." The people of Sapporo are like a family that comes home to find that it has been broken into by burglars who have cleaned the windows and tidied the place up.

Why have the visitors behaved so impeccably? And why did Japan get them so wrong? Partly the atmosphere of apprehension which has originated with the Japanese police. "There's been disbelief in what we've been telling them," says Mr Hogg, who has been consulting for months with his Japanese counterparts. "As it's unfolded and seen to be true there's been massive relief. They found it difficult to believe there was anything other than English hooligans."

"Japan is the kind of nation that worries a lot about what will happen," said 78-year old Kametaro Hamamoto. "Now everyone feels relieved. We over-reacted."

The tournament is three weeks from being over, but barring unexpected violence, the England fans will have achieved a remarkable metamorphosis from hooligans to heroes without even really trying.

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