As David Beckham and his wife received an ecstatic welcome at Narita airport here yesterday it was hard to escape the conclusion that, in Japan, at least, he is bigger than the club he has left behind.
The Beckhams are starting a tour of Asia to promote products as diverse chocolates and engine oil, for which they receive a hefty pay packet. But the Japanese yesterday just seemed happy to renew the acquaintance of the man they fell in love with a year ago and whom they call Bekkamu-sama, or Sir Beckham.
A year since England went out of the World Cup at the hands of Brazil, over 1,000 fans made the trek to see the Beckhams touch down. Schoolboys admitted that they had bunked off school. Office workers said their wives had pressured them to take the day off to be present at "a moment in history".
In his first appearance since signing for Real Madrid, Beckham merely assented when asked if he was happy to be headed for Spain. He then told scores of waiting Japanese and British reporters he was happy to be in Japan before racing through the fans.
The 23-year-old Emiko Hayashi, who was among hundreds who could not get a view of the Beckhams because of the crowds, said: "He is really cool. I really wanted to see him but there were people everywhere when we got here. I am a fan of him not Manchester United."
Even in 1999, when United came to Tokyo to play in the Toyota Cup, Beckham was the star attraction for the Japanese. But Beckham-mania exploded during the World Cup and has scarcely abated since. Beckham is one of a handful of footballers whose fame extends to Japanese who do not really follow the game but who know a superstar when they see one.
As Beckham-lover Naomi Kashima, a 30-year-old office worker, put it: "I only really know two English footballers. Beckham and whoever that one is who lost the money gambling."
Evening editions of Japan's normally staid broadsheets and downmarket tabloids found rare unity in running the news of the Beckhams' arrival and the transfer on their front pages.
Beckham's move may put a dampener on Manchester United's plans to develop its market in Japan, the world's second biggest economy. Though United's popularity is assured in much of Asia, Japanese fans are more fickle. Hopes of building a chain of Manchester United stores have never taken off, and are unlikely to do so without the team's biggest name.
En route from Narita to Tokyo, Beckham will have had the chance to see how far his fame has spread. His face adorns posters for a second-hand-car sales chain and Almond Choco chocolates.
If he flicked on the TV it would not be long before he saw himself and his wife saying how much they are looking forward to visiting Japan on behalf of the Tokyo Beauty Centre salon chain. If he were to board a train he would see himself with a J-Phone, the local equivalent of Vodafone. These sponsor deals are believed to net the Beckhams in excess of £4m a year.
The Beckhams rather predictably headed for the trendiest and grandest hotel in Tokyo. The Roppongi Grand Hyatt, which opened in April amid great fanfare, forms part of a massive development where fashionable Japanese have been flocking to shop and hang out.
The hotel lies between two of Tokyo's most famous night districts: sleazy but vital Roppongi and supercool Nishi Azabu. The Beckhams are believed to be staying at the hotel's top suite, the only one in Tokyo with a private outdoor pool, at a cost of £2,400 a night.
It is a far cry from the sedate Four Seasons Hotel, where Manchester United encamped for the 1999 Toyota Cup, apparently chosen because it is miles from the nearest station and would serve to keep distractions like publicity to a minimum.
This time around, it seems, Beckham is doing Tokyo his own way. And it does not matter if Sir Alex Ferguson would disapprove.Reuse content