Well-behaved, well-oiled and well happy. The fans who turned Sapporo into a human zoo

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In the first eight days of the 2002 World Cup, England fans have got used to the unexpected in Japan, but even so everybody was taken by surprise by the scene on the pavement outside the Sapporo Dome.

In the first eight days of the 2002 World Cup, England fans have got used to the unexpected in Japan, but even so everybody was taken by surprise by the scene on the pavement outside the Sapporo Dome.

The 8,000 England fans were jubilant, the few hundred Argentinians were gracious in defeat, and spirits were high. And out on the plaza a human tunnel of Japanese spectators and passers-by was formed. There were youngsters, a few middle-aged men and several families with little children. As the England contingent filtered out they were clapped and cheered and photographed.

People waved from cars as they walked through the centre of town. Within an hour the pavements around the Susukino entertainment district were a street party that continued until the early hours. Sapporo had never seen anything like it.

There were two kinds of spectators: those English and Argentinian ones who had come to watch the match, and those Japanese who had come to watch them. All day, the Fans' Village in Sapporo's Odori Park took on the atmosphere of a zoo. A few thousand England lions, clad in flags and fancy dress, face-painted and tattooed, basked and gooned around the fountains and statues, and drank and slept. Crowds of curious locals, at first shy but increasingly bold, came to gawp at the human exhibits.

"This is just like England," said a young doctor named Takeshi Tanabe, who admitted that he had never been to England. "This is such a sight; I think that in Japan there has not been a scene like this since the war. These people look as if they have consumed a lot of alcohol, but still they are in control. This is a very peaceful scene."

On Thursday there were four arrests of England fans – for cheating over change in a shop, for throwing a punch, and a pair who allegedly stole a pair of autographed football shirts from a sports pub. But considering the apocalyptic destruction many Japanese had feared, they were trivial. "We've had five arrests in the 12 days I've been here," said Ron Hogg, the Assistant Chief Constable of Durham, who is leading the British police contingent at the World Cup. "There's more than that in my village in a week. To be honest, we never thought that this tournament was high risk. But we never thought that it was this low risk."

Even the lack of available accommodation has not turned out to be a problem. "I went down to the park this morning and saw some people who spent the night sleeping in the park," said Mr Hogg. "It was very nice – they'd taken their shoes off to lie on the benches. The state of their socks left something to be desired, though."

The Fans' Village was the centre of activity. One stall provided free face-painting. The official England band played on the stage, and a tea ceremony and flower-arranging lessons were available. An event like this is like a soap opera – the same characters crop up again and again, and part of the fun lies in spotting the latest guise of people last seen in Tokyo or Saitama. There are the Men-In-Kimonos and the England Clowns and an ensemble of people including a cow and a trio of butchers with the words "Eat British Beef" on their aprons. There were two English toffs, with boaters, cigarette holders and monocles. At Sunday's jubilee match against Sweden I am fairly sure they were dressed as the Queen.

By midday, thoroughly lubricated with Sapporo's famous beer, the weekend was beginning early for many of the Japanese visitors. "We came here to see how foreign football supporters become excited," said 15-year old Yukie Hosono, with five other schoolgirls. "Japanese are rather shy, but they are very enthusiastic and quite talkative."

How did they communicate with their new friends? "With a little bit of English," said Noriko Hoshina. "And with body language."

By early evening, the Fans' Village uprooted itself for the 20-minute subway journey to the stadium. Police from every corner of Japan lined the route at intervals of five yards; each carried a megaphone or a flashing red rod or both. Four people were arrested for selling black market tickets, although many more changed hands without incident. The asking prices ranged from 50,000 yen (£275) to 170,000 yen [£935].

Alcohol is restricted in the stadium but plenty of people had already passed the point of no return. An Englishman named Philip displayed what the Japanese refer to as "fighting spirit" in trying to overcome repeated bouts of nausea. As a team of three Japanese stadium cleaners scurried to clean up his vomit, and his girlfriend slapped him around the face, he unfailingly revived himself to offer a torrent of abuse towards the opposition. Next to him, a party of middle-aged Japanese women helpfully pointed out to the cleaners areas which they had missed.

The Argentinian contingent numbered fewer than a thousand – the majority of blue shirts were worn by Japanese followers of the South Americans. Their loyalty was in question – when David Beckham took the applause after his penalty, it was the Asian Argies who cheered him most delightedly.

A week ago, the word fuurigan was a fearful term in Japanese. Now, it is a joke. Last night, a group of England supporters held aloft a large flag of St George on which they had inscribed the following words in Japanese: "We are true hooligans". Japanese schoolgirls, teenage boys, even mothers with babies, queued to be photographed with them like children waiting to see Father Christmas. Everyone wanted a keepsake of the true hooligans, because no one really believes in them any more.