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It wasn’t an Olympic test match, but Japan got to see how  Tokyo Stadium looks and feels like when the world comes to it.

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On September 20, the 2019 Rugby World Cup commenced at Tokyo Stadium in rousing fashion as  Japan defeated Russia in a stirring start to this increasingly popular rugby union world championship.

Tokyo Stadium, which is about 18 kilometers west of the National Stadium in Yoyogi, will be the site of Olympic rugby, soccer and the pentathlon in 2020. On the second day of the Rugby World Cup, I was at Tokyo Stadium for a match between Argentina and France.

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Fans from all over the world filed into the stadium, many of them making their way by train, and then taking a short 5-minute walk from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line to the Stadium. The path to the stadium was lined by volunteers who were there essentially to smile and wave us on. As a tv commentator said, the volunteers make the entry to a stadium feel like you’re at Disneyland.

Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was electric as fans from France and Argentina competed to be heard, and the inevitable “wave” increased intensity as it rolled around and around. As a bonus, the game was a nailbiter.

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France’s second try.

Despite falling behind 20-3 at the half, the light blue and white striped team from Argentina burst into the second half with two quick tries to pull within 3 of France, and eventually took the lead with a penalty kick. But the fans from France had to fret for only a couple of minutes when a drop kick from a recently added substitute pushed France back in the lead 23-21. And when a potentially game-winning penalty kick by Argentina went slightly wide, Les Bleus had won their opening match of the tournament.

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Argentina’s second try.

Right after the match ended, the fans filed out very quickly, made their way to the crowded station, and yet filled trains back into town. While security might be a tad greater for the Olympics, this match was an indication that getting in and out of Tokyo Stadium by train is a piece of cake. Granted, traffic will be greater as the neighboring facility, Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, will host Olympic badminton and pentathlon fencing.

Note: All photos taken by author.

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Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency"
Japan beats Argentina with Coach Cramer on the right in black, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

He is second from right, in the black coat, running onto the field to celebrate with his team – Japan’s victory over Argentina in a preliminary soccer match at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

Like so many sports, Japan was playing catch up. In the case of soccer, the then President of the Japan Football Association, Yuzuru Nozu, thought that Dettmar Cramer was the man to coach the national Japan team. So the West German coach worked with the Japan team for four years, and in their very first match, they defeat Argentina 3-2 in what was considered an upset.

Japan beats Argentina 2

Cramer would go on to be an advisor to the Japan team that went to Mexico City, and incredibly, Japan won the bronze medal. As he is quoted in this Japan Times article, striker Ryuichi Sugiyama said Cramer was a true inspiration. “Before the bronze medal (match) he told us ‘show me your yamato damashii (Japanese fighting spirit)’. As a trainer, he was fantastic but he was also engaging as a human being.”

Cramer passed away on Thursday, September 17 at the age of 90. His life was dedicated to soccer, leading Bayern Munich to victory in the European Champions Cup in 1975 and 1976. In Japan,

Peru Argentina Soccer Riot on May 25

  • Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the Summer Games in Munich in 1972.
  • Dozens of protestors were said to have been killed by soldiers in Mexico City 10 days prior to the start of the 1968 Olympic Games.
  • But in 1964, no violence visited the Games of Tokyo, often cited as the last “innocent” or “pure” Games. Security was relatively lax, and athletes enjoyed freedom of movement amidst a population most friendly and cooperative.

And yet, a little over 4 months before the start of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo, an Olympic qualifying soccer match turned into a brutally bloody affair.

The match was in Lima, Peru, on May, 25, 1964. Argentina and Peru faced off, and the winner would go on to compete in Tokyo. With time running out and Argentina leading 1-0, Peru equalized. But the referee from Uruguay disallowed the goal, sending the 40,000 people in the stadium into an uproar. A mob rushed the field, police fought back with tear gas and dogs, people were trampled, fires were set – total chaos.

In the end, Argentina went on to compete in the Olympics in Tokyo, drawing once against Ghana as well losing to host Japan 3-2. But one could only imagine their psychological state after leaving South America, where some 200 to 300 people died on that terrible day in May.

Here is a grainy video report from that tragic match.