Tales From The Temperance

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.

At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.

Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.

Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.

So, I had been relishing this for a while.

I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.

The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.

Ben, Jens and Walt.

The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.

I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.

At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”

It felt good to be able to get the beers in.

We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.

So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.

All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.

Good times.

I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?

In February, the boot will be on the other foot.

Let me explain.

I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.

Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?

It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.

I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football.  I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.

This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?

So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.

And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.

I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.

I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.

With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.

Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.

Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.

Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.

Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.

And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.

How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?

Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?

Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.

Watch this space.

We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.

The Temperance.

What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.

On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.

This was Chelsea, after all.

On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.

OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”

Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.

Here goes.

My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.

We lined up as below –

Arizzabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –

Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD

The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.

Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.

Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.

“They shall not pass.”

Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.

Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.

The game struggled to get out of first gear.

Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi  – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.

Bollocks.

The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.

Was there a reaction?

Not really.

The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.

I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.

He was with his son Joe.

Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.

Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.

Sigh.

At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.

Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.

My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.

In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.

On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.

The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.

Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.

Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.

Groans.

With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.

Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.

Fackinell.

Pedro replaced Willian late on.

Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.

By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.

I wanted to go home.

Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.

Postscript 1 :

Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s in my fantasy team.”

I hate modern football.

Postscript 2 :

On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.

Postscript 3 :

In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.

Postscript 4 :

At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.

See you at Arsenal.

 

Tales From The Edge Of The World

Chelsea vs. Corinthians : 16 December 2012.

The manic city of Tokyo was my home for five days and nights. To be honest, despite Chelsea Football Club providing me with the reason for travelling across such a large segment of the Earth’s surface, the trip wasn’t about Chelsea. It was about Tokyo. As always, I’m never happier when I am exploring fresh cities and foreign fields. Tokyo certainly didn’t disappoint.

The excesses of Thursday night and Friday morning, inspired by our safe passage into the final of the World Club Championships, had left me with a large hangover when I awoke at around midday on Friday. The jet-lag had kicked in too. Regretfully, I had to sleep on for a few hours, thus missing out on a trip with Mike, Frank and Foxy to the Tokyo Sky Tree tower in the north-west of the city. I eventually arose from my slumber on Friday afternoon and headed down to Shinjuku on the Fukotoshin line. I knew that I would certainly get my share of sensory overkill in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku train station is allegedly the busiest train station in the world. Down below street level, there was a rabbit warren of tunnels, elevators, lifts, stairwells, walkways to allow for transfers between stations, bustling passengers and a plethora of signs. Luckily, I had my “Pasmo” travel card to hand and found travelling the Tokyo tube relatively easy. Shinjuku station was also a shopping centre in its own right. It was a hive of activity. I made my way up to street level –oxygen! – and was bedazzled by the line of skyscrapers which greeted me. Tokyo even has its own version of The Gherkin, but it cowered in the shadow of loftier buildings. I soon bumped into another gaggle of Corinthians; they were easy to spot amongst the natives. Most were wearing Corinthians scarves, jackets or shirts. I again asked them how many Corinthians were over from Brazil. They commented that 20,000 had flown over, but their ranks were boosted by some of the 350,000 natives of Brazil who now live in South-East Asia. The numbers amazed me.

I walked down a few blocks, my eyes blinded by the neon, my face chilled by the wintry breeze, my ears listening attentively to the different cadences of a strange language which fascinated me. While I waited to cross a busy road, several trains passed over head on an elongated bridge. Tokyo’s transport existed on several levels; underground trains, street level cars and cabs, elevated trains floating over busy streets, rising and falling expressways with cars. There appeared to be apparent craziness, yet everything came together in perfect order. It was a beguiling sight. And everything was clean, so immaculately clean. Apart from the methane. Don’t talk about the methane.

I found myself underneath yet more neon at Yasakuni Dori. This seemed like the very epicentre of Tokyo. An Alicia Keys song was being played on massive video screens and her voice easily drowned out the noise of the traffic down below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDvceBND8Ws

I disappeared into the hub of Shinjuku, my senses working hard to rationalise all of it. Shops selling electrical goods, fast food eateries, girly bars, music shops. All of human life was there. I spent two hours or so walking at leisure in and around the crowded narrow streets. I dipped into a ridiculously cramped “Scottish bar” and sat alongside two whisky-sozzled natives. Before I could order, I was presented with a hot towel to refresh myself. I flicked through the food menu, which included a haggis pizza, but just decided on a drink. I ordered a pint of Strongbow cider, which was on special offer for the night, for 1,000 yen. That equated to £8; oh boy. However, the other regular beers (imports from the UK) were £12 a pint.

I wandered around some more, now needing sustenance. To be truthful, I again felt like a complete outsider. I peered at many restaurants, yet couldn’t decipher much of what was on offer. I entered two nice restaurants, but was told “reservation only.” Damn.

In the end, I chanced my arm on a more down-at-heel restaurant with no frills. Again, I was presented with a hot towel before I had a chance to order. I decided on a set meal which included a small bowl of soup, fried pork and king prawn, a small salad and a bowl of boiled rice. With a beer, this still came to around £23. The weirdest thing about the meal, though, was that the restaurant played a loop of Christmas songs from the ‘seventies and ‘eighties while I was eating.

“Walking In A Winter Wonderland. “

“Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time.”

“They Said There’d Be Snow At Christmas.”

“Well, I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day.”

On my walk back to Shinjuku, I discovered an amazing place. Tucked right against the train lines, was a ridiculously narrow passageway. It immediately reminded me of the madness that I experienced in the Chinatown area of Bangkok last summer. Here, within a space of around thirty yards were around fifty ridiculously small street cafes, seating no more than ten customers at a time, all at the counter, with food being fried in front of them. The smoke was billowing out from inside the kitchen areas and the air was heavy with an array of herbs and spices.

It was simply wonderful.

In that portion of Friday night, I think I managed to take away with me a few sacred memories of Tokyo. I sometimes feel it’s best to explore a foreign city by myself, away from distractions, letting everything slot in to place. I thought about Japan’s physical location on the Earth’s surface; in normal maps, out on a limb and away to the east, almost abutting the International Date Line. And then I thought about what I had so far witnessed. Tokyo was clearly different. So different in fact that I soon came across a phrase which I thought encapsulated my feelings for it.

To me, being in Tokyo seemed like existing on the edge of the world.

Tokyo was a city which was living by different rules, a city inhabited by 18 million polite and orderly natives, a city existing at a different pace and a city which miraculously worked. It was the biggest conundrum ever; it was a maelstrom of order. Tokyo shouldn’t work, but it clearly does. Millions existing together in a sparkling neon fantasy world. This was a space age city of tomorrow which was already here today. And it thrilled me like no other.

I was up early on the Saturday (3am early – my body clock was now officially frazzled) in order to meet the others at their hotel at Ikebukuro at 7am; this was the day of the long-awaited trip to Mount Fuji, the snow-capped mountain which overlooks the city from around 100 miles to the west. Opposite my hotel was a small (everything is small in Tokyo) McDonalds which was conveniently open for 24 hours. With thoughts of many McBreakfasts on trips to Chelsea games with Lord Parky, I ordered two McMuffins and a coffee. It bemused me that the seating area upstairs was populated with customers who were sleeping.

Live and let live.

At 7.30am, we clambered on a coach which took us down to the city’s bus depot. I spoke to Frank about seeing my second famous volcano of the year, after Naples’ magnificent Mount Vesuvius in February. This would be Foxy’s second volcano of the year too; he hails from Dundee, where the city’s less-famous volcano is the now extinct Dundee Law, which overlooks that city on the banks of the silvery River Tay. On the twenty minute coach ride, I saw another sight which made me gasp. Adjacent to the Tokyo Dome – a baseball stadium in the style of the Minneapolis Metrodome which is right slap-dash in Tokyo’s city centre – I spotted a tall roller coaster with associated loop-the-loop shapes that was right alongside it. I was gobsmacked. Imagine a three-hundred foot roller-coaster alongside Madsison Square Garden in New York.

No, neither can I.

Only in Tokyo.

We changed buses and, as Frank and Foxy had a cheeky smoke, they were lucky enough to witness a geisha wedding. Typically, there were a few Corinthians fans on our trip to Mount Fuji.

Ah, Mount Fuji; you mischievous temptress. Although I had already seen the crisp and iconic lines of this fantastic mountain from Mike’s hotel room on the Thursday, on Saturday she was shrouded in mist. We spent from 7.30am to around 6pm on a coach, a cable-car, a boat and a bullet train, but we still didn’t officially see Mount Fuji. It was a major disappointment. The clouds strangled Mount Fuji in a vice-like grip all day. However, at least we got to experience a little of Japan’s scenery outside of Tokyo’s 24 hour neon. The Japan that we saw from the coach was green and mountainous. We stopped half-way for an authentic Japanese meal which I wasn’t particularly enamoured with. There were just too many odd textures and tastes. Never mind, we washed it down with a beer. At every juncture in the day long excursion, we visited shops. This at least gave us plenty of time to witness Fun Time Frankie as he amassed the biggest variety of tat to the east of Coney Island. What he’ll do with a Little Kitty fridge magnet I will never know.

Later that evening, we had a drink in the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel, and then bought some tins of beer in a store opposite Mike’s hotel. We sat in Mike’s hotel room, listened to some music, chatted about football, music, Tokyo and the craziness of our simple presence in the city and watched the self-same city prepare for another night of fun, with lights sparkling down below. We were then out in the winter air, zipping through Ikebukuro train station, with the Christmas music still playing on internal speakers…

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All The Way…”

(“Oh What Fun It Is To See Chelsea Win Away…”)

In the distance, I also heard a few bars of the de-facto Japanese song of this year and all others; the one I featured in Tokyo Part One –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGs_vGt0MY8

So delicate, so atmospheric, so serene…so Japanese.

It will forever take me back to December 2012 in Tokyo.

We hopped onto a train – dab hands at this now – and revisited the 1863 Bar from two nights previous. A few other Chelsea fans called by too; first a couple of Aussies, then Darren Mantle, who had been to see a Tokyo derby match that afternoon with a few other Chelsea fans. He reported that there had been flags, loudspeaker-toting capos, scarves, rhythmic chanting, but no animosity to the other team.

That simply won’t do.

Despite the lure of an assortment of local nibbles that “Andy” the barman put on the bar for us to tuck into, we were all very tired. With a big match ahead on the Sunday, we called it an early night and I was back at my hotel at about 1am.

Sunday was the big finale.

Typically, Sunday was crystal clear. The skies were magnificent and devoid of cloud cover. I shook a fist at Mount Fuji but was soon thinking of other things. I was on a solo mission to make up for lost ground and I travelled across Tokyo on my Pasmo travel card in order to visit Tokyo Sky Tree. En route, I helped myself to a hot coffee in a tin from one of the thousands of vending machines which seem to be everywhere in Tokyo. That hit the spot; perfect.

I ascended from several layers of elevators at Oschiage tube station and the Sky Tree took my breath away. I was hopeful that I would soon be in the two viewing galleries, with all of Tokyo spread out before me. There was only one problem; the 3,000 yen admission fee. However, this was the least of my worries. The place was ridiculously busy and I was given a ticket (which was not an admission ticket, but simply acted as a ticket to allow me to buy a ticket at a later time that day) which implied that I would not be able to ascend the tower until 5pm, some five hours away.

Oh bugger it.

However, unlike several football managers that I dare not even mention, I had a Plan B.

I back-tracked and headed down to trusty Shinjuku yet again. I had read that the Tokyo Metropolitan Office building allowed visitors to visit the viewing gallery on the 22nd floor – for free, nonetheless. I had also remembered that Mike had said that the bar used the hotel in “Lost In Translation” afforded magnificent views of central Tokyo, too.

As it happened, I stumbled across the hotel – The Park Hyatt – and quickly tried to blend in with the diners at the restaurants on the 44th floor (great views) and the 52nd floor (sublime views) while I took advantage of the clear glass windows. My camera went into overdrive. I spent a good 45 minutes looking out at all points of the compass from the two levels. The views were magnificent. The hotel is right in the very centre of Tokyo, so I was right amongst it. In fact, if “Tokyo” is entered on Google Earth, the “red dot” (how appropriate) is a hundred yards from the hotel.

I was smiling from ear-to-ear as I hopped around the hotel, taking it all in. Tokyo is just simply massive. At last, I was able to photograph it and do it justice. To be honest, I was quite light-headed as I descended the floors and got back to street level. Fantastic stuff. I soon bumped into yet more Corinthians fans. I had heard rumours that Corinthians (or – as they pronounced it…Coreeeeenchia’) fans had sold cars, left jobs and even sold houses to travel to Tokyo. I wanted to know if this was true.

“Sure, it’s true. This cup is massive. We love this team.”

I had a little moment to try and equate what I had just heard with my feelings for the trophy which would soon be “up for grabs” some twenty miles away in Yokohama. There is no doubt that England, if not the whole of Europe, regards the Champions League as the biggest and most prestigious trophy on offer in World football. And – to be honest – I think that this is quite correct. It was the reason why some 40,000 Chelsea foot soldiers invested time and money to travel to Munich in May, yet only 17,500 of those were able to see the game. That only 600-800 had travelled out from the UK to see the two games in Japan did make me feel a little uneasy about how we as a club regarded the World Club Championships. Especially compared to the 30,000 Corinthians who were in every bar, every restaurant and on every street in Tokyo. This, however, was South America’s big moment to shine against Europe. It was their one chance to put one over on the moneyed ranks of UEFA. It was akin, in my mind, to the invasion of 80,000 Scotland fans back in the ‘seventies every two years for the England vs. Scotland game. Scotland owned Wembley in those days. It was their one chance to get one over the auld enemy. Well, in 2012, Tokyo was owned by the black and white Corinthian hordes from Sao Paolo.

To be honest, it reminded me of us being outnumbered in Munich.

With that, I stumbled across a “Soccer Shop” on the main walk back into Shinjuku. The place was festooned with shirts from clubs in Europe – you can guess which ones – and there were many items representing the World Club Championships, especially its two finalists. Interestingly enough, throughout my stay in Japan, I had not clocked eyes on a Japanese person wearing a single item of merchandise from any European club. Not one. The only such item I saw on the entire trip was a Liverpool scarf being worn by a boy on the London to Beijing stage. Despite better judgement, I stumped up 3,700 yen (or about £30) for a Corinthians T-shirt. I sometimes get souvenirs from my various football trips around Europe (a St. Pauli scarf here, a Juventus pennant there…) so a Corinthians shirt was no big deal. I balanced this by buying a Chelsea / World Club Championship key fob for 1,000 yen.

I zipped back to my hotel, decided on my match-day attire (maybe it was because I was now a Tokyo native, but this now took mere minutes as opposed to a longer period of time on a normal match day) and set off for the game. I again changed at Shibuya, then caught the JR Express to Kikuna and then on to Shin-Yokohama. It only took me around 45 minutes. I strolled over to the Chelsea pub just as Foxy, Matt, Mike and Fun Time were mid song. Anna and Kev were there too. A few other familiar faces from home; the three guys I had met in Kuala Lumpur were sat at a table inside. Outside, of course, the streets were awash with “Coreeeenchia”. Some were sat inside a street side bar with guitars and hand-held drums, blasting out a song for the passers-by. I disappeared off to purchase some tinnies from a store, then re-joined the boisterous crowd. Two locals drove past in a blue convertible which was festooned with Chelsea-flags, but which also had “Blue Is The Colour” booming out of its stereo-system. The car stopped in front of the pub – holding up the traffic – but enabled the Chelsea fans to join in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pea04tAMGNw

Frank was all over it.

A local – wearing Chelsea scarf and (worryingly) reindeer horns – suddenly appeared in front of me, smiling and acting as if we had arranged to meet up. I guess he was just happy to meet an “authentic” Chelsea supporter. He was carrying his two-year old son, fully attired in Chelsea kit, and as he turned around we saw that the boy had his name – “Sora” – printed on the back above the number “25.”

Maybe this was a Japanese pun. Maybe the father had named his son after Zola and Sora was the Japanese pronunciation of it. Either way, we quickly serenaded him.

“Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora! Sora!”

The little lad started laughing and smiling, then clapped his hands excitedly. It was a brilliant moment.

The beer was going down well. The others wanted to head off to the stadium, but Matt and I were more than happy to stay outside the bar, drinking in the atmosphere, lapping it all up. We talked very briefly about our experience in Japan. I said that I found the Japanese to be very reserved, but once a link of communication existed, they suddenly became very friendly, almost to the point of giddiness. As a contrast, I found the Thai people to be more open and friendly from the start. Matt, who has visited around 40 countries and is clearly an experienced traveller, commented that there is an over-riding fear of shame which permeates all of Japanese life; that it is best to stay silent, to be reserved, to keep your cards close to your chest, rather than be socially embarrassed by doing or saying the wrong thing. I found this fascinating.

Although, the third/fourth place game was taking place in the stadium, I had no time for it. With around 45 minutes to go to the kick-off, we eventually made a move. Once inside the entrance plaza, we bolted down some Japanese style fish and chips. We showed our tickets and we were in. The Corinthians fans were still in the ascendency and were full of song. As a solid mark of defiance, I slowly and deliberately bellowed out “Champions of Europe – We Know What We Are” repeatedly for thirty seconds.

Once inside the stadium, the difference between the game on Thursday was very marked.

The place was packed. Not only that, Corinthians banners and flags were simply everywhere.

At the other end, a single banner “Gavioes Da Fiel” took up eighty yards of balcony. This was their biggest fan group and their biggest banner. But elsewhere, there were other banners; too many to name. There were Corinthians behind us in our section, there were banners above us; we were well-and-truly outnumbered in Yokohama.

Your city? Your stadium? Your cup?

Before we had time to think about too much, the pre-game pageantry had begun. News filtered through that Frank Lampard was starting as captain. I hoped that sentimentality hadn’t clouded Benitez’ decision to start him. It was, after all, Frank’s first start for ages. After Luiz’ ground-breaking start in a defensive-midfield position on Thursday, Benitez chose to play Frank alongside Ramires, so Luiz reverted to his central-defensive position alongside Gary Cahill. A surprising start went to Victor Moses, ahead of Oscar.

The teams entered the pitch. The Corinthians at the other end unveiled a large white banner which floated over the heads of the occupants of the lower tier. There were balloons. There were flags. There was a black, grey and white version of the Union Jack. Was this an ominous sign for us boys from Blighty? In response, we managed to squeeze a few blue flags of defiance onto the balcony above us.

It was certainly magnificent to see Frank lining up with the officials and the Corinthians’ captain. The teams then lined up on the centre-circle and the FIFA “Moment Of Hope” took place. I am sure that this was always planned to take place, but I personally thought that it had deeper poignancy after the shocking, yet oh-so predictable, events in Connecticut which so shocked the global community.

The Chelsea support seemed to be more boisterous, yet significantly more nervous too, compared to the game against Monterrey. The terraces were packed. Foxy got the beers in; good lad. I had to juggle beer with cameras, with songs, with support. I was aware that I was remarkably tense and I had to have a quiet word with Frank who seemed to be enjoying himself far too much for a Chelsea game.

Orlin’s wife Katerina told me to relax after a Corinthians effort flew wide.

Relax? I’d like to be able to…

I thought that we looked pretty comfortable in the first-half. Of course, the big moment was the effort from Gary Cahill which the Corinthians’ keeper Cassio somehow managed to block on the line. Our biggest scare was when Cahill seemed to send the lively Guerrero to the floor. Thankfully, the referee waved away the penalty claim. Guerrero was also involved when a move ended with Emerson shooting against the outside of the post. The best move of our first forty-five minutes ended with Victor Moses curling a lovely shot at goal, but Cassio again managed to save, clawing it around the far post.

I thought we were the better team at the break to be honest, although there was little between the two sides. I just hope that our class told. After a noisy start, we had even managed to silence the 30,000 Brazilians in the stadium.

Chances were at a premium in the second-half and I sensed a lack of conviction and enterprise in our play. I certainly sensed a dropping off of our tempo compared to the first forty-five minutes. A few half-chances were traded. Then on 69 minutes, a quick break into the heart of our defence caused me to experience a fear of impending doom. After so many games, I must have some sort of sixth sense. Lo and behold, although an initial shot was blocked by Cahill, the ball spun up and into the path of the waiting Guerrero. Cech seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place. The ball was headed home with Cech stranded. The two defenders on the line could do nothing.

The Brazilians roared. Flares soon followed. I was crushed.

Benitez rang the changes with Oscar and Azpilicueta replacing Moses and Ivanovic. Our best chance of the entire game then arrived when the ball was sent pin-balling around inside the Corinthians penalty area. Typically, it fell at the feet of Fernando Torres. This was his moment. He only had the falling ‘keeper to beat. He had no time to weigh up the options. His instinctive prod was the wrong response and the ‘keeper blocked.

Oh boy.

Behind us, the Corinthians were making their presence felt. Earlier in the game they had bellowed disdain at David Luiz, the former Corinthians supporter. Now, one of their number waltzed down into our section and waved a large Corinthians flag. There was some shouting and posturing. After a small scramble, the flag’s metal pole was broken in two.

There was little penetration for the rest of the game and our cause was not helped when Gary Cahill lashed out; he was shown a red card. Then, a moment of hope. Oscar broke and sent over a fantastic cross towards the six-yard box. Torres rose and headed home. The ball smashed into the goal, right at me.

Get in!

I turned to my right, briefly saw Orlin going do-lally, but then heard the horrible words “he’s given offside.” Emotions turned 180 degrees. Pandemonium to agony in a spilt second. Mata even had one last chance to equalise, but his shot from an acute angle hit the outside of Cassio’s post.

The whistle blew and I just wanted to leave the stadium. I wasn’t really surprised how much this hurt. This was probably our only chance to ever be crowned World Champions. The only modicum of solace was for the thousands upon thousands of Corinthians who would now go home with a smile on their faces; I had no reason to dislike them.

I walked briskly back to Shin-Yokohama.

I was by myself now.

Walking through the train station at Shibuya, I was still feeling a little sorry for myself. I then realised where I was.

I was in Tokyo.

And I smiled the biggest smile of the five days away from home.

What a trip.

Although the city looked as beguiling as ever, I returned to my hotel at midnight, via one last lingering look at the neon up at street level.

I had to be up at 4am. I was so worried about the alarm not working on my phone that, once I awoke at 2am, I daren’t not go back to sleep again. I carefully packed my bags, tucked away all of my memories and headed down to the hotel lobby. A few Corinthians were coming in from a night of revelry.

It was their time and not ours.

I walked the mile or so south, past bars which were still open, to catch the bus to Haneda from good old Shinjuku station at 4.45am.

On the short thirty minute ride to the airport, I chatted to two Corinthians fans. We were all animated in our love of football and I thoroughly enjoyed the engaging conversation that we shared. One of them favoured Chelsea as his “European” team. I sensed that the other guy favoured Arsenal. They wanted to know about the size of our support and where our support came from. Had we been successful prior to Abramovich? Who were our main rivals? I was able to pass on tons of information for them to take home with them. Corinthians’ main rivals are Palmeiras and Sao Paolo. We had many things in common. For example, all three of us loved our club in a far greater way than our national teams. I was able to review our remarkable march to the Munich final in May and they were aware of every game, every twist and turn. Corinthians had won the Copa Libertadores with a win against Boca Juniors. Corinthians had only 1,500 tickets for the game in La Bombonera; perhaps this half-explained the 30,000 in Tokyo. At least they were assured of tickets in Japan, as bizarre as that seems.

There was a lot of sarcasm aimed at Corinthians in Brazil since they had only won the Copa Libertadores on one occasion. Like us, their biggest ever trophy triumph took place in 2012 and 2012 alone. Additionally in 2000, Corinthians were invited to take part in the inaugural World Club Championships as the reigning Brazilian league champions when Brazil was the host country. The fact that they won that 2000 Final is viewed as being a hollow trophy, by Corinthians and their rivals alike, since they had not won the Libertadores first.

The smiles of the two Corinthians sitting opposite proved to me that they had now won it fair and square.

Fair play to them.

Despite Chelsea’s loss, this football-powered chat high above the streets of an awakening Tokyo on the narrow expressway on the way to the airport was a brilliant end to my stay in the craziest city of them all.

Ah, the bittersweet ache of leaving a city as wonderful as Tokyo.

Over to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBwrx0YHo34

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