|Fast train to nowhere
By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2
Day 12: The World 98, England 2
In a taxi to Shin Yokohama Station, 9:25 a.m.
Sure, like their distant, distant, brethren in New York City, these cab drivers speak limited English -- but boy, do they make an effort. Without exception, every driver I've had so far has turned around with a big smile on his face and asked, "Eengerland?" And when I say yes, they go straight to a phrasebook, specially prepared for them by the JAWOC (Japanese organizing committee) and say, gleefully, "Eengerland, strong team!" They probably say a similar version of this to every foreign supporter of every nationality (even Saudi Arabia, Poland and France, ironically), but today's driver is especially excited to have someone from England in his taxi. He lists me every member of the England squad, "The Jo-oe Cole, you like it?" Yes, I do. "Themeeeeeeel Heskeeee, you like?" Yes, I do. "The Shering-ham Teddie?" ... It's like playing a game with a 4-year-old.
But I don't care. Today I'm off to Osaka to see England's crucial final Round 1 game against Nigeria. One point, and we, they, I, am through to the second round.
I thought I'd already seen the Shinkansen bullet trains, I actually thought I'd been on a few, but the blurry, silver thing that flashes past at Warp Factor 4 is definitely not like anything I've ever experienced. An American voice behind me screams out, "Jesus H. f$*%@ Christ! What was that?" I jump and gasp simultaneously, giving myself the hiccups. As I've said, I'm dead hard, me.
A few minutes later ... well at precisely 10:19 ... the 10:20 Hikari Shinkansen to Osaka pulls slickly into our platform. If Ferrari made trains, they'd make one like this. It is beautiful, streamlined, comfortable and very, very, very, very fast.
I get in and find my seat. It is fully adjustable, extremely comfortable and, as the train pulls away and accelerates, I can't believe how quiet it is. The businessman beside me is wearing headphones and watching a DVD, which is plugged in for power to a socket in his arm rest, I read the paper for a few minutes, then lean back and fall blissfully asleep.
It is like a commercial for Amtrak's Acela service between Washington, D.C. and Boston -- but nothing at all like actually riding Amtrak's Acela service between D.C. and Boston.
When I wake up, right after England wins the World Cup and my mate Scoops (long story) scores the winning goal, we're pulling into Osaka.
Somewhere near Nagai Stadium, late, hot, lost, 2:30 p.m.
It finally works. We arrive, I thank Carlos and offer him an excellent cigar I picked up in Yokohama. He gratefully accepts. Crap, I think, where am I going to find another good smoke in this Godforsaken shanty town?
Something is bothering me. It is the Nigerian fans. They are dancing. There are only about 100 of them, dressed in the spearmint green shirts of their national team, completely outnumbered by the 40,000 or so red-and-white-clad England fans, half of whom are actually English, rather than Japanese. But the Nigerians are making a real racket; I pick up my binoculars, they're having a great time -- they're already eliminated from the tournament, but they don't care, they've got drums, tambourines, a couple of trumpets, silly wigs, seats right in the sun and it's about 100 degrees outside. It's like any late afternoon in Lagos.
I scan the other end of the stadium where the core of the England support seems to be located. It's like a summer's day on the beach in Lanzarote. The English are burning up in the sun, there is no shade and they don't have the energy to fan themselves, as the Japanese onlookers all seem to be doing, let alone stand up and sing.
The England players come out of the tunnel for a very tame warmup, and most of the crowd hardly has the energy to give them a round of applause. God, I hope they don't wear their red shirts. Way too hot. They have to wear white. Much cooler.
The Media Tribune, observer seats, 3:30 p.m.
The second half is much better for England, and they largely control the game. Sheringham, on as a substitute for Heskey, has a chance to win it but shoots over from six yards, and Scholes, inexplicably, takes a quick free kick to no one from a spot right at the top of the box with his clubmate, and one of the best dead ball artists in the world, Beckham, looking on in disbelief. It must be the sunburn.
Towards the end, the Nigerians seem to lose their heart a little, already thinking of home cooking, no doubt, and the England players seem to get wind of Sweden's goal against Argentina, which will make it hard for them not to qualify.
It ends 0 - 0. There are some groans in the press box, but I don't know why. Once again, I think it's a good result. Just like in 1990 (when they reached the semifinals), England has five points, scoring two and conceding only one in their opening-round matches. The good news is the game against Denmark, though a solid team with plenty of speed on the wings, will be at night. The bad news, only 2½ day's rest and, if England wins, an almost certain do-or-die encounter with Brazil, the new tournament favorites, in the oppressive heat of midafternoon.
The Nagai Stadium Media Center, 8:47 p.m.
Everybody here is stunned that Argentina is out of the tournament, but I'm happy. My soon-to-be wife's family are Swedish and this result guarantees domestic harmony. I think they could go a long way, Sweden. And I'm not just sucking up, honest.
I read what I've written so far and think about correcting a couple of things (it seems Osaka is not so much a shantytown, as one of the major cities in Japan, but I can't be bothered to change it). But am I being too positive about a scoreless draw for England?
I ask the nicest journalist I've met so far, the man from World Soccer (an excellent publication, I remind you), who is sitting opposite.
"England were crap, but it doesn't matter, they got the result."
He has way more experience than me. Far more succinct than my, count them, 486 words to say the same. But I've finished my diary entry for the day. It's not pretty, but it's the result I needed. I've also finished ahead of the woman from the Times of London, who's also writing a daily diary (bloody good by the way).
She's holding her temples and shaking her head. She's a real writer. I'm off for a beer and a ropey Dominican cigar.
And right on cue the 99th (Spain) and 100th goals of the tournament (Slovenia) ripple the back of the net within seconds of each other.
Michael Davies, a native of London, is executive producer of ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." He'll be filing five diary entries per week from the World Cup for Page 2.