Letter from Tokyo: Japan warms to Red Devils

Letter From Tokyo
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The Independent Online
TOMOKO IWASAKI is one of the lucky ones. When the phone lines opened, a friend managed to get through and buy them both tickets for tomorrow's Toyota Cup football match. Within an hour, the phone lines were closed and all 40,000 tickets on sale were gone. Iwasaki is now preparing for the gruelling five-hour trip to Tokyo from her home in western Japan to cheer on the team from a country she has never been to. "It's my beloved Manchester United. I had to be there," she says. "I couldn't just watch it on television."

The Toyota Cup has always been a big event in Japan's footballing calendar - not surprisingly for a game pitting the European champions against the South American title holders. But for tomorrow's game, which sees Manchester United take on Palmeiras of Brazil, the interest is extraordinary. One reason is the rumour that this Toyota Cup could be the last. Though the event's handlers deny it, many fans fear that Fifa's new World Club Championship will render the Toyota Cup redundant. But for thousands of fans, the attraction is United.

It has been 14 years since an English club last played in the Toyota Cup, but Manchester United's timing could not be better. Interest in the Premiership has been growing since Sky began to broadcast live games in Japan two years ago. Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea all have their fans, but the treble season clearly brought many Japanese fans to United. "Our membership has more than doubled this year alone," says Hiroki Miyagi, secretary of the Tokyo Manchester United Fan Club.

And then there's that man Beckham: subject of devotional websites, cover boy for sports magazines (I counted seven covers this week) and the only English footballer with an autobiography available in Japanese.

The backdrop to the Premiership's rise is the decline of Japanese domestic football. When Japan's professional J-League was launched in 1993 it sparked a national frenzy. Tickets were snapped up in hours and it seemed football might replace baseball as the national sport. But the novelty faded and many J-League clubs found themselves playing to nearly empty stadiums by the third season. For many football fans, the Premiership has filled the gap. "I'd rather watch Bradford against Coventry than J-League," says Ken Miyamaru, a 30-year-old Spurs fan. "No disrespect intended to Bradford and Coventry. I'm saying that even low profile Premiership fixtures are classics compared to J-League."

A Spurs season-ticket holder since 1993, Miyamaru makes frequent trips to London to see games. By contrast, he has only been to see his local J-League team once - when a friend gave him the ticket.

Yet fans are perhaps too harsh on the J-League. It has clearly raised the standards of football here, enabling Japan to qualify for the World Cup for the first time. Many stadiums are first rate, paving the way for Japan to co-host the 2002 World Cup. And after the league split into two divisions this season the quality of the top flight has improved, raising average gates to over 10,000.

The Premiership has some serious competition for the hearts of Japanese fans. Brazilian football traditionally had a much higher profile here and South American players like Zico and Dunga have excelled in the J- League. The Premiership also lags behind Italy's Serie A in popularity, but that is hardly surprising with two of Japan's biggest stars playing there - Hidetoshi Nakata at Perugia and Hiroshi Nanami at Venezia.

Many fans say it is the atmosphere of Premiership games, above all, that they love. And this English stadium culture has gradually been adopted by J-League fans. These days fans chant and sing - sometimes adaptations from the English terraces - and jeer wildly if the opposition have a penalty. Back in 1993 drumming was in, fans were polite to the opposition and expressed excitement by blowing "cheerphones", making a sound something like a paper comb.

If one team has led this transformation it is Urawa Red Diamonds. The Reds are one of the few J-League teams which enjoy passionate support - despite a poor record on the field. While many clubs plumped for Italian- sounding names - Gamba, Sanfrecce, Verdy, etc - Reds marked themselves as English, even modelling their kit on Manchester United's. The fans, revelling in the association, printed MUFC on their flags: cleverly incorporating the club's sponsors, Mitsubishi, into the name.

Whether Manchester United's popularity will last is uncertain. The Japanese tend to latch on to success, and some expat fans feel a couple of mediocre seasons could see the bubble burst like the J-League's. Indeed, the one crucial way the Reds have not been able to emulate United is on the field - on Saturday, despite their 1-0 sudden-death extra- time victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima in front of a capacity 20,000 crowd, two points were not enough to keep the Reds in the top flight, and they will spend next season at least in the Second Division.

Estimates put perhaps as much as 80 per cent of the crowd behind Manchester United tomorrow. Not that Palmeiras will be completely without supporters: Miyamaru and his friends will be cheering them on. As Spurs fans they feel it's their duty.

Colin Joyce