While my first trip to Japan has at times felt a little disorienting, the festival atmosphere of the World Cup is clearly here, and that familiar frenzy-ephemeral though it may be-has helped me feel at home. My favourite part of the World Cup is the fans, and their enthusiasm and excitement don't change, regardless of when or where the games are being played.
My first day in Tokyo I wanted to try my ticket-scalping luck in suburban Ibaraki for the Italy-Croatia match. But I overslept after all the travelling, and missed the special trains to the stadium. So I headed to a pub in the entertainment district of Roppongi instead, and plopped myself down on a stool for some football. Next to me was a burly Japanese guy proudly wearing the Italian national team jersey. "My name is Tetsu," he said. That means philosophy." Since I studied philosophy, I figured he'd be a good companion.
Tetsu recently graduated from an agricultural university, but his major field of study seems to have been football. And his favourite team in the world-even more than his home country's-is Italy. Several times during the match, he stood up on his stool and tried to lead the crowd in chants of "Ee-Tal-Ya! Ee-Tal-Ya!" in hopes of spurring his heroes on to victory. It wasn't Italy's best day and as the game slipped away Tetsu grew visibly agitated. Italy took a 1-0 lead early in the second half, but lost the initiative as Croatia pressed forward. Tetsu had already chain-smoked half a pack of Lucky Strikes when Croatia got the inevitable tying goal. Croatia scored again-time for another drink. As the crowd cheered for a Croatia upset, Tetsu sat disconsolate, shaking his head and smoking faster than ever. But five minutes after the whistle was blown on a 2-1 Croatia victory, his dark mood cleared. We got another beer and half-watched Brazil destroy China while comparing notes of past soccer travels, and when we parted, we pledged to meet again next week for another night on the stools.
The next day I took a train to Miyagi in northern Japan for Mexico-Ecuador. In the stations, and on the trains you could feel the anticipation. Hanging around the stadium before a World Cup game is a big rush-everybody's in a good mood and wearing their national team jerseys, and a few people always take the celebration a little further. On Sunday, a few Ecuadorian fans were wearing hats shaped like fruit baskets. One Mexican fellow was marching around in an elaborate headdress, a suede loincloth and a strange pair of shoes made of walnut shells that clacked feverishly when he danced. And everyone, everywhere, was banging on drums, blowing whistles and chanting.
But I still didn't have a ticket, and was feeling a little pessimistic a half-hour before kick-off, when most of the crowd was already seated in the stadium. Then I saw a group of middle-aged Mexican guys hurrying towards the gate. They had an extra ticket and, no doubt because of my recent experiences haggling in Nepali bazars, I got an unbelievable seat for half-price: 16 rows up from the field, right behind the Mexico bench. I sat with the men from whom I'd bought the ticket, and they even lit a victory cigar after Mexico came back from a goal down to pull out a 2-1 win.
On the train home, I chatted with a yellow-jerseyed Ecuadorian named Ruby who lives in New York City and works in a sweater factory. Not the greatest job in the world, but he could save enough money to fly across the world with a friend to see his home country in its first-ever World Cup. Even after his team lost, he was still amused that, here in Japan, everyone on the train was cracking jokes in Spanish. Plus, he sees another Ecuador match this week, and it doesn't really matter that it will almost certainly be their last. That kind of dedication and joy is what makes World Cup fans so much fun to be around.