A ripple of excitement became a roar as a packed St James’ Park found out their Championship fate: Promoted as Champions instead of runners-up. The euphoria was contagious, spreading from the North East of England all the way to South East Japan, where a group of 15 Japanese Magpies raised their Brown Ales in a toast.
Among the narrow streets of Takadanobaba, fans from all backgrounds come together to watch football over a few rounds of their favourite beverage. Beer on tap, a well-used pool table and large screens broadcasting the week’s games, Tokyo’s Pub 2NDHALF has all the welcoming values of a traditional British pub. Memorabilia ranging from Nakamura’s Celtic shirt to the classic MUFC tops line the walls.
Owner Yoshiki Yamaguchi, who spent 26 years in the UK before returning to Japan for good, was shocked at the rise in interest: “Although being away from Japan for a long time, I was surprised to see so many English football fans in Tokyo.”
Manchester United remains one of Japan’s and Asia’s most supported football clubs, so it comes as little surprise when many fans boast about their favourite team in red. Yet packed into a corner of the pub, draped in black and white, Japanese national Wassy and his friends proudly watched on as the big screen showed the best goals of the Championship season.
“About 15 of us gathered and celebrated winning the league over bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.” he told me in an interview for Newcastle360, “I was the one who planned it and looked for participants online. It was the first time meeting some of them for me because we usually interact on Twitter.”
For Yoshiki Yamaguchi, it was a welcomed surprise: “Of course there are plenty of people who support likes of United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, all over the world, it was a good surprise, though in small numbers, to see supporters of Newcastle, Wolverhampton, Blackburn, and West Brom in Japan. Some are quite knowledgeable and have a strong passion for the sport.”
The rise of football in Japan has been a work in process over the past few decades. The sport has suffered various ups and downs due to league format changes and dips in attendances, but since the introduction of the J-League and the rise of social media, it has become a national phenomenon.
A sea of 105,000 packed the sold-out Azteca Stadium. First used only two years prior, all eyes were on El Coloso de Santa Úrsula as one of football’s most incredible stages to date. The game: Mexico vs. Japan in the final week of the 1968 Mexican Olympics. A couple of days later on the 26th of October, fans would be gathering to bare witness to the event’s finale between Bulgaria and Hungary. Yet for many, this was the climax.
The ‘Bronze Medal Match’ was attended by 30,000 more people than the final that year. A nation watched on confidently as Mexico kicked-off red hot favourites. A narrow 2-3 defeat to Bulgaria in the semi-finals didn’t look too bad compared to the 5-0 thrashing that Japan received from eventual Gold medalists Hungary. This was the chance for the host nation to salvage something.
Yet what happened on 24th October 1968 would stay with both countries forever, for very different reasons. A young man of 24 with flowing black locks of hair had put the game to bed before the half-time whistle had even gone. All-time top goalscorer Kunishige Kamamoto went on to claim the tournament’s golden boot with a total of 7 goals, two of which sealed his country Bronze. Japan had won a medal for football at the Olympics, becoming the first Asian country ever to do so.
Back home: euphoria. What followed was a boom in interest which lasted well throughout the 70s. This helped kick-start the Japan Soccer League, which had only seen the light of day for three years before the national side’s victory. Eventually, the lack of professional sides hampered the development during the last decades of the 20th century, but in the long run, this only strengthened the sport by giving birth to the J League of present in 1993. At last, football was on the menu.
Born a year later in Saitama City, Wassy, a lifelong sports fan, was about to get his first taste. “Historically, the most popular sport in Japan was baseball,” he told me, “football was a new thing, but over the next 10 years it became one of the biggest national sports”. Situated roughly 20km north of central Tokyo, Saitama is now home to Urawa Red Diamonds, one of the most prestigious football clubs in Japan.
“The arrival of great players like Leonaldo, Zico & Lineker, captured people’s attention. In addition to this came the 1998 World Cup in France, for which we qualified for the first time in our history. By then, Japanese football was booming.”
Fast forward four years and the aftermath of the boom had begun to show with the country given permission to host its first World Cup. For Wassy, the pride surrounding the national side is vital: “When someone says “Japanese football”, the first thing that comes to mind are the words “Samurai Blue”, the national team’s nickname.
“Though they are yet to reach the heights of many other sides, Japanese people are crazy about them. This is mostly down to the top quality players that have come through the side such as Shunsuke Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Atsuto Uchida, and Shinji Kagawa.”
Japan held their own against tough opposition, they finished top of their group but were knocked out in the next round by Turkey. Yet the nation was only getting started. Next up was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and another feat was about to be achieved by Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
“In 2010, I remember Japan went through the group stages in South Africa. The competition was extremely tough. Physically, the Japanese side was quite small, a disadvantage in football. Yet on the other hand, we had a team that was able to utilise great technique.”
The side would go on to be victims of a penalty shoot-out against Paraguay, but for Wassy, things were only beginning: “The two free-kick goals from Honda and Endō against Denmark made an entire nation go football-mad. From then on there was no turning back, I was hooked.”
At the age of 16, the young man would experience something that would change the course of his life as a supporter. “When I was a child, I was interested in baseball. I’m still a big fan of Tokyo Yakult Swallows. I loved to watch Formula One too. Football was out of my sight at that time.
“But in 2011, a year after the World Cup, I was more eager than ever to pick a team. One day, I turned on my TV and tuned into local channel “NHK” which was showing MUFC vs NUFC. At that time, Man Utd was a household name for many, so I expected a victory for the away side against a team I had barely heard of.”
At the time, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were in the midst of their title campaign, but Newcastle were having a quiet stormer of their own. The end result was one of the shocks of the season, but the quality of Pardew’s side was not to be undermined with the team going on to finish 5th.
“I’ll never forget how Demba Ba’s beautiful volley and Yohan Cabaye’s 30-yard free kick helped Newcastle to win the game. I was so amazed by how good this team was. In that very moment, my decision became an easy one, I was to support NUFC, through thick and thin.
“My idol was Hatem Ben Arfa. Absolutely. That kind of playing style was something I had never seen before. Peter Lovenkrands is also one of my favourites.”
Ever since, Wassy has enjoyed many highs and just as many lows as a Newcastle United supporter: “My favourite moment was the Shola Ameobi equaliser against Sunderland the same season. The emotion from that game was infectious. The worst days have to be our consecutive defeats under John Carver. I think they were by far the toughest days as a NUFC fan.”
Yet Newcastle’s new number one fan was to encounter more challenges of his own being on the other side of the world: “I tried to organise two previous meetings prior to the Championship finale, but because the games are on later here it is difficult to get everyone together in the capital. We always watch English football around 9pm to 2am.
“The toughest thing is not being able to go to the stadium and experience the fantastic atmosphere. I was fortunate enough to travel to Newcastle this year, but many fans are yet to visit. For now, we often sit at home and discuss the results online.”
A new season potentially means more televised games for overseas supporters, but an excited Wassy knows that fans must remain patient if NUFC are to have a solid season, “The side will struggle because of the difference in level no doubt.
“However we have lots of quality in hardworking players like Jonjo Shelvey & Matt Ritchie. I think the mentality is absolutely vital going into the new season. If one thing is for sure, there are still plenty of good moments to come under the fantastic Rafa Benitez.”
A special thanks goes out to British Pub 2ND HALF owner Yoshiki Yamaguchi & NUFC fan Wassy who took time out their busy schedules to answer Newcastle360‘s questions. You can follow Wassy’s progress as he continues to work hard to provide constant NUFC-related updates over at @nufcjapan on Twitter.