On the Road With The Socceroos

3 June 2013
Read Time: 2.0 mins

The bright lights of Tokyo are a world away from greenbelt Saitama, where Australia meets Japan in a vital World Cup qualifier on June 4. When Socceroos supporters step out from the gun-metal grey concrete of Urawa-Misono train station, they will find themselves surrounded by open fields.

 Japanese fans

From a distance, Saitama Stadium appears to have been plonked incongruously onto the middle of open farmland. Downtown Tokyo may be a mere 30 kilometres away but urban sprawl hasn't quite caught up to Midori-ku – a name which fittingly translates to “Green Ward” to reflect its agricultural surrounds.

Despite its nondescript surrounds, Saitama Stadium is a hotbed of Japanese football. Built for the 2002 World Cup, the 63,000-capacity venue is the regular home of Urawa Reds – one of Asia's most popular club sides. But it's a different colour on show when the Japanese national team are in town as the feared Samurai Blue strut their stuff in front of their adoring fans.

Wall of noise
Anyone who has watched football in Asia knows the reputation of Japanese fans. Their fervent Ultras Nippon supporter group is one of the loudest in world football and they routinely turn their home end into an impressive shade of blue.

That won't stop Australian fans from trying to out-sing their fanatical counterparts and around 3,000 Socceroos supporters will be wedged into one corner of Saitama Stadium for this marquee World Cup qualifying showdown.

It's a far cry from the approximately 43,000 Socceroos supporters who descended upon Germany for the 2006 World Cup finals – reputedly the largest mobilisation of Australians anywhere since the end of World War II.

On the road
It makes sense that an increasing number of Socceroos supporters are travelling in support of the national team. Since joining the Asian Football Confederation at the start of 2006, Australia has so far featured in major tournaments in Germany, Southeast Asia, South Africa and Qatar.

And with destinations like Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent, the ancient state of Jordan and the hidden gem that is Muscat in Oman to call upon during various Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, Australian fans are now spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring the exotic lands at their doorstep.

More than just an excuse to sing when you're winning and sink a few beers in the stands, the Socceroos offer sports fans a rare opportunity to travel internationally on a regular basis and learn a thing or two about new countries and cultures in the process.

Saitama showdown
For now, it's a relatively familiar foe staring down the Socceroos in Saitama, with the two sides having met five times in competitive fixtures since Australia's historic 3-1 win over Japan at the World Cup in 2006.

The last time these two fierce rivals met in Japan, they did so in the historic port city of Yokohama, where just under 70,000 fans witnessed a cagey scoreless draw which ultimately benefited both sides.

There's more at stake this time around, but even if the Socceroos lose, Australian fans can console themselves with the fact there's still plenty to do in downtown Saitama.

The core of the city lies around Omiya Station – keen observers of Japanese football will note Omiya Ardija are the Saitama city rivals of Urawa Reds –and the streets surrounding the station are typical of any urban Japanese area.

Karaoke bars, izakayas, sushi restaurants and the usual assortment of Japanese streetside stores abound and come 10pm on Tuesday night, downtown Saitama will be buzzing - regardless of the result between two of Asian football's fiercest rivals.

Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.