Bigger than Beckham

Saturday 24 August 2002

While the headlines in this country were dominated by disturbing news from Cambridgeshire, and international newspapers were concentrating on the possibility of war with Iraq, the Japanese media had eyes for only one story last weekend.

Splashed on the front page of every single paper, and dominating all the news bulletins on TV, Junichi Inamoto's Premiership debut for Fulham was the talk of the land of the rising sun.

It is difficult to appreciate what football, in particular English football, means to the people of Japan. For them, the Premiership is the most important League in the world because it represents glamour on the one hand, and tradition on the other. It tells you every-thing that magazines about English tea shops and public schools sell by the thousands in Japanese bookshops. Coverage of each Premiership match is detailed, especially if Inamoto's team are involved.

Last season, even though the midfielder sat in the Arsenal reserves for most of the time, the Japanese media would turn up religiously to every game, hoping for a glimpse of their superstar. But the breakthrough never came and, despite an excellent World Cup with his country, Arsène Wenger decided to release him this summer.

The national dream of seeing a Japanese footballer playing in the Premiership seemed as distant than ever.

And then came the offer from Jean Tigana and Fulham. Inamoto leaped at the chance, and was rewarded with a substitute's appearance against Bolton on the opening day of the season. He came on for just 23 minutes, but the band of supporters (including some 40 university students who follow him wherever he goes) at Loftus Road did not care. Nor did the dozen or so Japanese journalists whose mainraison d'être in England is to report on Inamoto's every move.

Even those whose knowledge of the beautiful game is sketchy at best still have to do their bit. Shinsuke Kobayashi is not a football reporter, and yet the England correspondent for the Kyodo newspaper is on 24-hour Junichi watch. "Whatever he does and wherever he goes," he says, "Kyodo follows it."

The appetite for this sort of sports celebrity story in Japan is insatiable. Takehiro Sukegawa, who reports for the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun, says that obsession with sportsmen is commonplace back home. No wonder, then, that Fulham have created a separate "Japanese membership" section on their website.

"People want to know everything about Junichi," Sukegawa explains, "and Fulham have been clever to pick up on the potential exposure."

What is perhaps a little lost in this country is the status someone like Inamoto enjoys in Japan. "Think David Beckham, then double it," is the way Kobayashi describes him. "Junichi is huge."

The 22-year-old is also one of the most recognisable faces in Japan. His boyish looks led the former Japan coach, Philippe Troussier, to nickname him "Big Bébé". On the pitch, though, Inamoto is far from an innocent child. At the World Cup, he battled hard in the midfield and proved that he has come of age.

The Japanese media have long felt that he deserved his chance in the Premiership, so last Saturday's cameo appear-ance was the moment the Junichi Posse had been waiting for since his arrival here 13 months ago. And boy did they enjoy themselves.

"It's a huge story," Kobayashi says. "Not just because Junichi is the first Japanese player to play in the Premiership, but also because of what he went through at Arsenal."

The year-long loan at Highbury did not go the way Inamoto had hoped. His original aim was to emulate his compatriot Hidetoshi Nakata, who has made a success of his move to Italy's Serie A after the 1998 World Cup. His close friend Shinji Ono has also managed to make a mark at the Dutch club Feyenoord over the last 12 months.

Though Inamoto could not hold down a regular place at Arsenal, he says he has no hard feelings about his time with the Double winners. "I didn't play for a year, but practising with excellent players helped me greatly improve," he says. "It was the best thing for my career to join Arsenal. Watching the team has inspired me. For example, the match against Manchester United in April was a very, very hard game, played in top gear, which I like. I am a better player now thanks to Arsenal."

In Japan, Inamoto is a sporting hero to the men, and a sex symbol to the women. On Thursday, as he arrived at Motspur Park to join his team-mates for a straightforward training session, three young Japanese girls emerged from their seated positions to scream hysterically as he got out of his car. They would have loved to have met their heart-throb, of course, but they did not mind that he failed to stop to talk to them.

Instead, the trio sat patiently outside the ground from 8am until 7pm. They saw Inamoto twice, once when he drove in, and once when he drove out. Thursday was the last day of their two-week holiday in England. They say it was also their best.