Beckham admirers follow England to quarterfinals

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

TSUNA, Japan

From Saitama to Sapporo, Osaka to Niigata, they are everywhere. Now there will be hundreds more in Shizuoka.

Red or white England shirts worn by Japanese soccer fans with the No. 7 on the back and the name "Beckham" is the apparel of choice.

While Michael Owen and his No. 10 shirt has been another big seller during England's journey to the World Cup quarterfinals, Beckham's has been far and away the most popular.

And now he's revealed he could finish his playing career in Japan.

"You never know, I might play over here at one point," said the 27-year-old Manchester United star, who just signed a five-year contract with the club. "People have always asked me what I want to do after I've finished playing and soccer schools are something that have always interested me, because I enjoyed them when I was young.

"To do something over here would be absolutely amazing, as my popularity is amazing over here. Could I combine that with playing? Yes, possibly, you never know at the end of my career."

England has a huge following of Japanese fans on top of its own 7,000 supporters. There is one name heard regularly in every bar, restaurant, train station and airport.

Even for Japanese who don't speak English and English who don't know Japanese, the name Beckham becomes a conversation starter.

Watching him pass by

The Japanese fans stand on street corners just to catch a glimpse of the star and his distinctive blond streak as the England team bus goes by.

When the players are announced at the stadium, there is a near-blinding flash of light from a thousand cameras when his face appears on the big screen. The same thing happens when he runs over to take a corner kick or one of his trademark free kicks.

With his pop star wife, "Posh Spice" Victoria, back home expecting their second child, Beckham is a headline-maker wherever he goes.

But the England captain also arrived at the World Cup with an injury that threatened his very appearance.

The victim of a two-footed tackle in a Champions Cup quarterfinal victory over Deportivo de La Coruna on April 10, Beckham broke a bone in his left foot. Happily for the England captain, it mended amazingly quickly. To strengthen the foot, he bounced up and down on a small trampoline. Soon, he was able to run and shoot.

Beckham is a big hit away from the World Cup itself.

When 200 schoolchildren were invited to an England training session in Tsuna, the autograph they all wanted was Beckham's. When the players visited a school, he kissed a 10-year-old girl on the back of the hand and on her cheek, sparking a chorus of screams from her classmates.

"It has been amazing," Beckham said. about the near delirium caused by his presence here. "There's always 20 or so people running after the bus shouting 'Beckham' or 'Owen'. It's nice to see, especially as we're so far from home."

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