If you love the rhythmic beat of a drum, you’ll love Japan fans. If you don’t, bad luck.
Only one group of fans was making all the noise inside the Khalifa International Stadium, and it wasn’t the German fans. For 90 minutes, most of which seemed like a desperate cause, they sang, they clapped, and most importantly, they banged that drum.
Europe often sees itself as the center of the footballing universe, but European teams have won just three matches in this tournament so far – and their fans haven’t dominated it either. Instead, it’s South Americans, Asians, and of course Mexicans.
FFT doesn’t say Mexicans are everywhere in Qatar, but when we headed to the luggage storage after France vs Australia last night, a man had turned up to collect… his sombrero. Staff searched the back room, emerged with the circular hat, then had to be fired – they had brought out someone else’s sombrero by accident.
Given that France’s game started just an hour after Mexico’s first game against Poland had ended on the other side of Doha, one can only assume that the two sombrero-wearers had been unable to get a ticket for El Tri and had come to see Kylian Mbappé instead. Given the lavish nature of the PSG man’s performance, they probably weren’t entirely disappointed.
Australian fans unfortunately were – including the supporter who sat next to FFT on the bus back to the night’s accommodation, holding a giant inflatable kangaroo. “He feels a bit deflated,” the fan told me sadly — although given how much space the huge kangaroo was still taking up, he was probably even less deflated than most.
Everywhere you went in Doha on Tuesday, you met celebratory Saudi fans, who had crossed the border in droves to see their shock victory over Argentina, creating an incredible atmosphere inside the Lusail Stadium.
France v Australia wasn’t quite like that – both teams had respectable numbers of traveling supporters, but in particular the Europeans didn’t make the trip in quite the same numbers as fans from some other continents, perhaps put off by FIFA’s general unpopularity. decision to award the World Cup to Qatar.
Without a large number of traveling supporters there was a fairly large amount of empty seats – with four matches a day there are only a limited number of local football fans to fill the gaps. Once France finally took control of the match, the atmosphere took a nosedive, descending into silence for a few periods. By the final whistle, many had decided to dart early to catch public transport, and the stadium was less than half full.
Germany v Japan was the fifth of 10 matches TFF is present in the space of five days this week – luckily we somehow managed to miss all of the 0-0 – and again it was remarkable that the dominant fan base was not the Germans, as many might have expected, but the Japanese.
Off the ground, some had come in costume, many were displaying national flags and another was waving a Bob Marley banner. Don’t ask us why. The Germans were much less present, their optimism not high at any rate after a not particularly impressive campaign in the Nations League – albeit a campaign that saw them finish higher than England.
England faced Asian opposition at the same stadium on Monday (with just eight venues at this World Cup compared to 12 in 2018, stadiums are used more regularly), and the Three Lions beat Iran in impressive 6 -2. Qatar also succumbed to Ecuador, but Saudi Arabia and Japan put the continent back on the football map this week.
The greatest day in Japanese football history 🙌You like to see it 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/wc1zWghZGXNovember 23, 2022
As with Saudi Arabia, for a long time there was no sign of the shock that was about to unfold. Germany led through a penalty from Ilkay Gundogan, were disallowed a goal from Kai Havertz for offside and looked largely in control. Despite this, Japan’s fans continued to make noise, their loyalty to their national team showing no bounds.
In the end, their manager’s plan worked perfectly – to keep the score low for the first 70 minutes and then attack. Inevitably, their goalscorers Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano both play for their soccer club in Germany – and the two goals set off delightful scenes, as substitutes ran along the touchline in celebration, while fans were unleashed with joy.
For Germany, it was their first World Cup match since losing to South Korea in 2018 – four years later the nightmare had returned. It’s not a vintage German team, on paper or on the pitch, and in the end it showed. Their next game is against Spain – lose that and it could be a group stage exit for a second consecutive World Cup.
As for Japan, its supporters will be there again for their second match against Costa Rica. Sing, clap and above all hit that drum.