France '98 veteran Whitmore feels 'fan-atical' love in JapanSunday, June 20, 2021
BY SEAN A WILLIAMS
BELIEVE it or not, Jamaica Head Coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore enjoys almost godlike status in Japan. You read right, Japan.
Whitmore himself had no idea he was so revered in the East Asian country until a recent visit with the Reggae Boyz for a two-match friendly series against Serbia and the Japan Under-24 outfit.
Even though the Boyz were in a biosecure bubble on the two-week trip and were inaccessible to the Japanese public for the duration, that did not deter fans craving the precious autograph or photo op.
But these fans were not after the signature of players, some of whom were high-profile ones from England, instead they wanted a 'priceless' moment with Whitmore, the former midfield maestro.
It's ironic that the Japanese would be so interested in the Jamaica coach and France '98 World Cup veteran, especially since he was the one who scored two sublime goals to defeat Japan 2-1 in the final group game.
Whitmore, in the 39th and 54th minutes, gave the Boyz an auspicious 2-0 lead, scoring with each foot. Japan got a rallying goal in the 75th minute courtesy of Masashi Nakayama.
It's a result that would stand out in the memory of both Jamaicans and Japanese — for it was Jamaica's only win in their first-ever World Cup and it was Japan's closest sniff of a victory. They, too, were making their debut.
In the normal scheme of things the Japanese should hate the very mention of Whitmore's name, but in a weird way, they kneel before him.
In Japan recently many citizens were desirous to get a piece of the retired ball magician, but no two as determined as Kei Takahashi and Funai Hirotake.
The pair had stalked the Jamaican contingent from the moment it arrived in Tokyo on Monday, May 31, until they left on Sunday, June 13.
When the Jamaicans flew to Osaka two days later, Takahashi and Hirotake arrived ahead of the group. When the Boyz arrived in Nagoya after a couple of hours by bus, the Japanese were at the hotel. They even checked in.
They seemed to know the Boyz' itinerary in detail because they were able to stay one step ahead.
Takahashi and Hirotake attended every training session, sporting a replica of the shirt that Whitmore had worn at the World Cup — the famous number 11 and the player's name emblazoned across the back.
All the Japanese fans wanted was Whitmore's autograph, but they were prevented from getting close to the Jamaicans due to the strict protocols associated with the COVID-19 bubble.
On arrival back from each training session, there they were again. The tenacity displayed by the Japanese men was frightening as it was admirable.
But Japanese are officious and strict people, it doesn't matter how much members of the Jamaican delegation begged for a 'bly' to grant the wish of Takahashi and Hirotake, the response was the same: No way!
At times, the Japanese would try to breach security cordon to get close to Whitmore, but each time they were barred. But at no time, even though the duo was pushy on occasion, did the situations ever get physical.
When the team played the Japan Under-24s at Toyota Stadium in Aichi, Takahashi and Hirotake were there, but they couldn't get close enough for a chance to get their moment of glory. By the time the team got back to the hotel, guess who were waiting? You know who.
A couple hours after arriving at the hotel the contingent undertook a five-and-half-hour bus ride to Tokyo where the plan was to overnight and then depart Narita Airport for the USA en route to Jamaica.
On schedule, Takahashi and Hirotake arrived at the hotel ahead of the Boyz. But more than that, they checked into Tobu Narita Hotel, realising that this was their last chance to get hold of Whitmore.
Next morning, there they were lurking around as the Boyz boarded their buses to the airport. But again, security and Japan FA officials kept them at bay.
At the airport the opportunity opened, when security and local football officials were distracted for mere seconds and Takahashi and Hirotake got their wish.
In a flash, Whitmore signed the shirt and even posed for photographs with the men, to the collective hurrah of the group. By the time security personnel realised what had happened, it was too late.
Takahashi and Hirotake, who who speak little English, were a picture of relief and excitement as they bowed repeatedly in the traditional Japanese fashion to show their gratitude.
For their unrelenting pursuit, they got a bonus. Whitmore signed two current Boyz jerseys for the men, who immediately put them on.
In return, Takahashi and Hirotake bought goodies from Starbucks for Whitmore.
The Jamaica coach was apparently blown away by the show of love and the fanatical way in which the men pursued their goal.
“It is very weird but as the saying goes, a king never gets honoured in his own country. But to come here and see the respect and the love these guys show was something.
“It was like they were on tour with us as they were with us at every city that we went to…they were also behind us, and it is just heart-warming to see how they appreciate you,” he told the Jamaica Obsever.
For those who may not know, one of Whitmore's aliases is King, so when Japanese men bowed before him and kissed his boot, that's consistent with royal treatment.
Whitmore said it would have been deflating for him had he not got to sign the shirt for the men.
“It would have been very disappointing for me if I wasn't able to grant their wish when you look at the effort and the expense that they put in…they just wouldn't give up.
“Even at the last point at the airport as we were leaving to go home they were determined that they must get that autograph and that photo,” Whitmore stated.
He noted that the affection displayed by Takahashi and Hirotake was symptomatic of a broader appreciation the Japanese have for Jamaican culture.
“I think this is much more than football, it is about our culture. And even if you look at the music, where they have the Japanese sound system Mighty Crown, this shows how much they love our vibe…the Japanese give you the feeling that they are an extended family. It's just amazing,” Whitmore said.
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