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Irish Team’s Grit Wins Over Japan

June 10, 2002

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CHIBA, Japan (AP) _ The never-say-die spirit of the Irish team seems to be winning over Japanese fans.

Over the weekend, more than 3,500 people came to watch the squad practice in the hot sun, including adults wearing green soccer jerseys and children waving flags and chanting ``I-ru-rando!″

Some were merely curious about the foreign players. Others wanted to see a World Cup team up close. But a growing number of Japanese have become admirers of the Irish, impressed with their hustle and determination on the field.

Robbie Keane’s last-minute goal against the Germans, salvaging a 1-1 tie after repeated missed chances, seems to especially have made an impact.

``They have such heart,″ said Mitsuo Suzuki, a fan in a green cap with an Irish flag who showed up Monday, only to be disappointed that the team was holding a rare closed practice. ``I was really impressed with their game against Germany and I wanted to see them.″

On Saturday and Sunday, crowds of Japanese _ with a few diehard fans from Ireland sprinkled in _ surrounded the team’s practice area in Chiba, just east of Tokyo. The fans poked their noses and cameras through the chain link fence and cheered when a player scored or a goalkeeper blocked a shot.

Several knots of people, consisting of adults and children, occasionally burst into chants. Some waved flags and others put up banners.

When veteran defender Stephen Staunton sauntered over to the fence, he was swamped with autograph seekers.

Most of the Japanese onlookers weren’t able to identify the Irish players. But the names of Keane, Matt Holland and free-kick specialist Ian Harte could be heard on the lips of many watching.

``They’re awesome,″ said high schooler Shintaro Kawakami. ``Which one’s Robbie Keane?″

Takahisa Abe, a 65-year-old retiree wearing a green ``Ireland volunteer staff″ vest and Ireland cap volunteered his time for 10 days to help with crowd control at the training ground. Bragging about autographs he received from Holland and coach Mick McCarthy, Abe said he, too, was struck by Ireland’s tenacity against Germany.

``They just never gave up,″ he said.

If there were fears before the tournament over unruly soccer fans, the enthusiasm of these Japanese shows many have set those concerns aside and happily joined in the World Cup festivities.

Almost without exception, visitors say the Japanese have been extremely hospitable and kind, helping with directions and even driving them to places they wanted to go.

``We have a reputation for being welcoming, but I think the Japanese have outdone us,″ said Tony Cronin of Dublin.

Some Japanese have practically adopted the Irish as their World Cup team, partly because the team stayed in their area.

``They’re practicing here, so everyone in Mihama wants to cheer them on,″ said Kiyoe Yamaoka, a housewife from the nearby town of Mihama.

But few Japanese fans have been as dedicated as those from Izumo, a farming town in western Japan where the team held its training camp before the tournament.

About 100 Izumo residents endured a 13-hour bus trip _ one way _ to attend Ireland’s opening match in Niigata against Cameroon. They joined with the thousands of green-clad fans in the stands and though Ireland started out poorly, it came back to tie 1-1.

Fifty others from Izumo made the trip to the second match in Ibaraki, and 50 more plan to set out at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning for a 12-hour bus ride to Yokohama for Ireland’s last Group E match against Saudi Arabia.

If Ireland can win by two goals, it is assured a place in the second round.

McCarthy and his players are all keenly aware of the team’s popularity with the Japanese.

``It appears to me that they really do like spirited performances, team performances,″ he said.

When the team departed Izumo, McCarthy said he received a bundle of cards from local children.

``They were wishing me good luck, but the majority (of the cards) had ‘fight’ or ‘fight to the end’ or ‘don’t give up’ on them,″ he said.

Holland said the Japanese support has been an enormous boost.

``The fighting spirit, the Japanese really like that and have taken us to their hearts,″ he said. ``We couldn’t have asked for any more.″

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