England played in five different Japanese cities in the FIFA World Cup 2002. They were in Saitama, Sapporo, Osaka, Shizuoka and Niigata with the latter one being a game which I often forget about. It was against Denmark in the Second Round but because England easily won 3-0 with all the goals in the first half it has never lived too long in the memory. It was also used for two early group matches where Ireland and Cameroon drew 1-1 before Mexico beat Croatia 1-0 a couple of days later.
The Denki Big Swan Stadium is the home of Albirex Niigata who are currently on top of the table as the J2 League season is drawing to a close. Visiting this stadium was the climax of a three-day solo mini-break to Niigata Prefecture. It took just under 20 minutes to get there from the south exit of Niigata Station but there was a long queue for the buses before that, and as ever I didn’t get a seat for my 270 yen!
After disembarking from the bus about an hour before kick off it didn’t take too long for the 42,300 all-seater stadium to come into sight, and I was immediately moved by the architectural wonder. Just to the side of it was a stretch of water which was nice as such features always add to the appeal of exterior shots in my opinion!
There was a statue outside the stadium commemorating its use in the 2002 FIFA World Cup which was co-hosted with Korea.
Getting inside involved another long line before the temperature check, bag search and ticket validation procedures were all completed.
Kick off was just a matter of moments away when I finally got into my seat which is rare in Japan where very early arrivals are most common place, and indeed I have been inside two hours early a number of times.
I didn’ t really catch it in photographic form but the home fans were all holding aloft orange glow-sticks in an impressive light display just before kick off.
Whilst just about every other country has gone back to normal regarding the regular match day atmosphere, Japan has been painfully slow in moving on but this was thankfully a match where the likes of singing and flag-waving were permitted as a kind of test before normal service hopefully returns.
Mid-table opponents Mito Hollyhock were second best throughout most of the match with some very dodgy passing at the back but they did threaten on the counter attack a couple of times, and even hit the post from a free-kick on one occasion.
The visiting team’s Japanese-French goalkeeper Louis Yamaguchi was in fine form in the first half and made two very good saves but was unable to keep out Yuji Hoshi’s opener on 36 minutes. More on that keeper later!
As the second half started, the thought of my very early exit was hanging over my head big time and it was hard to relax and enjoy it all too much.
Luckily, I was around to see the second goal for Albirex which saw striker Kaito Yamaguchi’s weak header from a set-piece basically go through the aforementioned keeper. Those previous saves soon disappeared from his memory no doubt!
My plan was to leave just after the 70 minute mark which is incredibly early but I wasn’t the only one as a few others started to depart at this time. Before the match I had enquired about when the shuttle buses started going back to the station, and was told they go every 15 minutes from 7pm onwards so my intention was to get the 7:45 one. However, I was horrifed to discover that was not true and the next one was at 8 which would have been very touch and go for my 8:23 train. There was no choice but to get in a taxi and so I was probably already back at the station by the time the match ended, and 1500 yen lighter too!
Final Score: Albirex Niigata vs Mito Hollyhock
Ideally I’d have liked to have got round all the Japanese stadiums used in the 2002 FIFA World Cup by the 20th anniversary of the tournament or by the time Qatar 2022 kicks off. However, Covid_19 put paid to that idea and this was actually the first new stadium I’ve been to since 2019. There are still three more stadiums in Osaka, Oita and Miyagi which need to be ticked off before I complete this mission. It’s gonna take at least another year or two I guess!
Click here to read ‘TF Flashback: World Cup Museum & Stadium Tour In Seoul (2006)’
Click here to read ‘Our Own Private Tour Of The Stadium In Yokohama Which Hosted The 2002 World Cup Final’
Click here read ‘World Cup Opening Titles: Japan/Korea 2002′
Click here to read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt VI: Sapporo Dome’