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Japanese Crowd Supports Team

June 4, 2002

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SAITAMA, Japan (AP) _ Parents with their children, young couples, elderly people, flags, drums and chants of ``Nippon, Nippon.″

Though the Japanese public was never on the field, it was a huge boost for the national team in the first match of the co-host’s World Cup campaign.

``We had a 12th man behind us,″ Japan’s French coach Philippe Troussier said Tuesday after the 2-2 tie with Belgium.

``The public was fantastic _ better than a 12th player,″ Belgium’s coach Robert Waseige agreed. ``In the most important competition in the world, to have a public as supportive and as positive as the Japanese were _ well it’s the first time I’ve come across a public of that quality.″

Long before the match started, Saitama Stadium was swathed in blue as fans clapped, cheered and celebrated the biggest home match the Japanese team ever played.

Though most of their songs had few words other than ``Nippon″ _ the Japanese name for their country _ the fans sang enthusiastically, even after Belgium took the lead early in the second half.

When Takayuki Suzuki tied it for Japan, the noise in the stadium was deafening; when Junichi Inamato took the lead for the hosts, the roar could almost be heard in co-host South Korea.

The hinomaru _ Japan’s flag _ floated throughout the stadium, while huge banners and a huge replica of a blue Japan shirt were passed from hand to hand through the adoring spectators.

``Even though it was a tie, we ended as winners, Japan ended as winners,″ Troussier said.

``It was a great game for us and a great game for Japan,″ Inamoto said.

There were empty seats _ around 8,000 according to official numbers, a reflection of the continued problems with ticket sales for matches in Japan _ but they were scattered around the stadium and were hidden in the sea of blue.

Even the stadium itself was enough to impress the Belgians.

``You don’t really notice much when you’re down by the pitch, but it is beautiful,″ said Eric Deflandre, a Belgian defender who spent the match on the bench.

Japan lost its three matches in the 1998 World Cup in France, so Tuesday’s tie already was a big improvement.

Troussier has tried to keep Japanese expectations realistic, and by that standard he has already reached his first target _ to get a point for Japan. With two more home games ahead of them, against Russia and Tunisia _ where their 12th player will again be in attendance _ Japan has realistic chances of reaching the second round.

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