Coming off the back of a lengthy round-the-world backpacking trip, the 2002 World Cup Finals happened at a great time for me as I was free to watch pretty much every moment of the tournament and it made such an impression on me that I even moved to Japan. During that World Cup, England played their five games at the following:
* Saitama Stadium 2002, Saitama (52,721): 1-1 vs Sweden (2 June 2002)
* Sapporo Dome, Sapporo (35,927): 1-0 vs Argentina (7 June 2002)
* Nagai Stadium, Osaka (44,864): 0-0 vs Nigeria (12 June 2002)
* Niigata Stadium, Niigata (40,582): 3-0 vs Denmark (15 June 2002)
* Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka (47,436): 1-2 vs Brazil (21 June 2002)
Of those five, the Saitama one is the only one within close approximity to the Tokyo Fox Global Operations Centre and one that I have been to a couple of times to see Urawa Reds play. Whilst that is an impressive stadium, it has always been the Sapporo Dome that I have wanted to visit ever since I saw a TV feature on this stadium during that Summer of 2002.
Initially, I thought I’d only get to see this state-of-the-art from the outside or by a tour (and I’d have been fairly content with that) but by miraculous chance there was actually a J2 game being played on the Monday night when we were in town so I managed to persuade my American counterpart Ethan (a non-sports fan) to go to the game.
The J2 game in question was between Consadole Sapporo and bottom club Oita Trinita and having made our way to Fukuzumi Subway Station on the Toho Line we walked on down to the stadium which was about ten minutes away. Unlike my recent J1 ventures there didn’t seem to be as many replica shirts on display which was even the more bemusing as once inside the spaceship-like domed arena the majority of fans were wearing the black and red stripes of the home team.
Getting tickets was very easy and we chose to sit amongst the more vocal of the Consadole fans behind the same goal where David Beckham slotted home the winning penalty (Watch it here) in the aforementioned grudge match against rivals Argentina. On that wonderful day in 2002 the attendance was nearly 36,000 people but on this occasion it was just shy of 9,000 (8,974 to be precise!) not that you can really compare the two occasions of course!
The main reason for my fascination with the Sapporo Dome was not just to do with England once playing there but because the roof is not retractable and is indeed fixed yet the pitch they play on is most definitely real grass. How can it be I hear you say! Well, the grass is kept outside among the elements when the games are not on and then slides under one of the stands into the stadium. It’s not just a football pitch either as an artificial baseball turf does likewise and is used by the Nippon Ham Fighters. (See a video of the transformation process here).
As is the norm at games in Japan the atmosphere was good and the noise prior to kick off in particular was pretty loud. Usually when reporting on games we trot out all the usual cliches such as the away team scoring to silence the home fans but that kind of thing, such as Oita’s 13th minute opener, doesn’t seem to interfere with the atmosphere too much in Japan where the singing rarely ever stops.
Watching with an American was actually fun. In the past I’d have probably have hated to hear such on-the-field action described in such a different way to how us Brits refer to the beautiful game. I just wish I could remember some of his Americanisms! Thankfully, he enjoyed his first ever football match more than I thought he would. I think the flow of beer helped with that!
This match also gave me the chance to see ex-Japan national team players Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto; two players who really helped spark my interest in Japanese football. I had ‘Ono 18’ on the back of my first Japan shirt in 2005 and Inamoto was a star of the 2002 tournament with a couple of goals and his fine form continued for Fulham in the Premier League at the start of the 2002-03 season. As for this game, Inamoto started but was substituted just a minute into the second half and Ono came on in the 78th appearance for a brief appearance. Neither really impressed in any way which is not too surprising given that they are in the twilight of their career.
For the record, the match finished 1-1 with Consadole equalising in the 60th minute and though they pushed on they just couldn’t break down the resolute Oita defence. Personally I don’t know how anyone can ever leave before the end of their own teams game but as neutral fans it didn’t matter so much so we left in injury time (though we still watched the remainder on the TV monitors in the concourse) as I wanted to beat the rush and get back into the city centre as soon as possible in order to get round a few drinking places on our final night in Hokkaido.
You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt VII: Sapporo‘ here