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Terrace Talk: Nigeria v Japan

Go to match report by Richard Brown

Mark McQuinn dons his anorak and sees Saint Mary.

11.30 am Sunday 7th October. While the rest of the country slept off their Beckham-inspired hangovers, found myself driving on the M3 just outside Southampton - seemed more like midnight on the set of the Evil Dead 8, or whatever number they have reached now. Almost pitch black with rain in the form of malevolent unseen beings bombarding the car with water cannons and wind on the scale of John Prescott making a long speech after a night on the vindaloo to contend with.

Japanese fans in summer yukata - Japan v Nigeria. No matter - plenty of time to find Southampton's new stadium and sink a couple of pints before the intriguing if slightly bizarre encounter between Japan and Nigeria started. Both teams were surely ready for a bit of rain when they knew they were going to play in England during October but must have been staggered by the Biblical downpour that greeted them on the south coast.

Hardly the ideal preparation for playing in Japan and Korea in the middle of summer but what the hell; the honour of being the first international teams to contest a match at Southampton FC's ground since Ireland turned England over at the Dell, 1-0, during the 1900-1901 season, was surely reason enough to be there.

Headed for the Old Town, which had not attracted any Japanese or Nigerian punters - their loss, as it is worth a look. Saints fans in the pubs told me the new ground is still called the Dell as far as they are concerned, pointing out that as well as carrying the long and proud tradition of Southampton FC, the name trips off the tongue a tad easier than ‘the Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium.' They were amused to learn that Kawaguchi had told the Japanese press that he was pleased to be playing at Southampton, as he was sure quite a few fans from his new club, Portsmouth, would come to cheer him on. I was assured that they and he would be assured of a ‘warm welcome' from Saints fans.

Buoyed (no pun intended) by ale and spare ribs, waded through the deluge to the stadium. Impressive from the outside - the huge dark Perspex front looks cool and drew the Japanese fans in large numbers for a photo opportunity underneath the Rising Sun flag.

Both sets of fans well up for it - coach after coach from London spilled out Nigerians sporting plenty of green and white flags, banners and drums while the Japanese carried fewer tokens of support but more food.
Good humour was in early evidence and remained a feature of the day - a high scoring draw between the two groups.

Arrived outside the stadium to see a throng of excited Japanese fans battling for a photo with what appeared to be a broomstick topped by a gargoyle. On getting closer it turned out to be Arsene Wenger, doubtless there to run his eye over Inamoto's form. Tragically missed my chance - he strode purposefully away just as I got close and I was left to fight back the tears before entering the stadium. St Mary's is less impressive through the turnstiles - breezeblocks and bars punting Tetley's at £2.10 and coffee at £1.05 - both options come lukewarm. Views of the pitch are top quality though.

The rain continued to lash down through the National Anthems, but did not deter the Nigerian drummers behind the goal or the Japanese teenagers in the front row, protected from the gale only by a 'Japan-Banzai' banner, while looking imploringly towards the Japanese television crew covering the game.

A much better match than anyone had the right to expect given the conditions ensued. Crisp passing from both sides, though the right flank area that Japan defended in the first half rapidly became a small boating lake, leading to moments of slapstick - several times Matsuda skidded up and down the wing in a Mr Blobbyesque dance with Nigerian forwards while the ball was left way behind, floating about serenely.

Inamoto looked good in midfield but Nigeria were dominating until the 26th minute, when Yanagisawa's gentle downward header bemused the Nigerian keeper, who was more interested in perfecting the high kicking part of his can-can routine, thus allowing the ball to trickle past him into the left-hand corner of the net.

Time for Japan to concentrate hard, mark closely and keep it tight for 10 minutes - er, not. Within a minute, a shot skidded off Matsuda's shins and into the Japanese net after his colleagues had allowed Ejiofor the freedom of the flank. Japan need to up the grittiness level for next summer. At least Ono and Toda are doing their bit in this regard with top quality 'hard haircuts' - Hidetoshi Nakata should get more space in the Finals this time, with Ono's skinhead and Toda's mohican around him to clatter the opposition in midfield.

The second half was more entertaining than the first - plenty of chances and a fair bit of bite throughout. The fans also upped the tempo - a good few Japanese behind the goal got down the front and ignored the maelstrom to chant and lark about for most of the second period. Sustained 'Nippon' chants after Suzuki put Japan back in front 10 minutes into the half but the drums never died for long and the Nigerians kept the vocal support going throughout - a loud semi-wolf whistle being a favourite.

Japan fan in hat - Japan v Nigeria.The introduction of Chelsea's Babayaro led to immediate problems for Japan down the left and it was from this area that the Nigerian equaliser came. Matsuda took his eye off the ball and allowed Agahowa a clear run on goal leading to a cool finish. Fair result overall. Hard to judge Japan and Nigeria on this one-off but both sides could make an impression next year if they put out their best teams and play to their strengths. Both will need to be a lot sharper up front if they want to really do well.

As for the fans, top marks for ignoring the weather and concentrating on having a good time. Three honourable mentions in dispatches -

(i) the roly-poly Japanese 'cheerleader' behind the goal who looks like a cross behind a biker and a real-ale fanatic - top beer-gut, top beard and top headgear - a hat which looks like a football from a distance. He kept the singing going and the shutters clicking.

(ii) the shirt-sleeved Nigerian fan right down at the front behind the goal, who remained oblivious to the weather and 'coached' Nigeria throughout the entire 90 minutes - screaming instructions, despairing at every mistake and delighting in every piece of good play.

(ii) the Japanese girl who had clearly had a few too many and spent most of the second half waving a small Nigerian flag and dribbling an imaginary ball around before executing a side-foot finish at regular intervals and celebrating with gusto.

Hope they will all get tickets for the Finals next summer.

St Mary's Stadium, Southampton F C (7/10/01)

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