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I went to Japan and spent all my future children's money on football shirts

Hunting for Hagis in Tokyo & Osaka

I went to Japan and spent all my future children's money on football shirts
15 May 2017

“Where...where do you get all these from?” is a question I asked at least three times, without getting a definitive answer. “We have nothing like this in England!”

Football shirts don’t really tend to get collected; it’s more that they simply don’t get thrown away. Every now and then you’ll embark on A Clear-Out, the main purpose of which is usually to finally put of their misery nice jumpers that shrunk in the wash, bad Ted Baker shirts you bought at the airport because Ted Baker are apparently the only menswear shop allowed in airports, and one old football boot.

When it comes to that tired old bin-liner of football shirts (in my case, at least three too many England away shirts from 1998-2006 that still smell of hope but are stained with underachievement) you can never quite bring yourself to do it. “They might be worth something one day”, you massively lie.

An underwhelming visit to Japan’s equivalent of Sports Direct in a half-hearted browse for a suitably obscure football shirt unearthed only one curiosity: the distinctly kawaii home shirt of mid-table J1 League nobodies Sagan Tosu, whose badge boasts the motto “The champions in the hearts of all who love Sagantosu”. Fun addition to the bin liner, sure, but there had to be more than this.

An aimless Google search for “Tokyo retro soccer” proved instantly more promising. 90% of the internet’s useful knowledge is contained in forum posts from c.2009, and from there emerged the location of Vintage Sports Football. Next stop: their Facebook page, to check they still existed eight years later, and…this:

The first impression of VSF’s relentless social media output is their beautifully indiscriminate approach to what is considered a cool football shirt. For every artful photo montage of Franco Baresi’s AC Milan shirt from 1994/95, there’s a young chap contemplating modern life in a Tokyo stairwell while wearing Sheffield Wednesday’s away shirt from 1992/93.

Anyway, to the shop itself - or, rather, the shops.

VSF have three Aladdin’s caves dotted around sprawling Greater Tokyo, plus another in Osaka’s second-hand shopping goldmine of Amerikamura. Each of them are only slightly bigger than a double garage, rammed full of carefully packaged, labelled and arranged football shirts.

My first port of call, a short excited skip away from Shibuya Crossing - a mass of people, 50% trying to cross the road, the other 50% trying to Instagram them doing it - paid almost instant dividends.

A quiet ohayou gozaimasu to the guy behind the desk complete, the first shirts to greet me on the first rail were that Hagi shirt, just below Nigeria’s USA ‘94 effort (YEKINI, #9). Oh god.

Duly encouraged, I got to work. In order to cover every hanger on every rail in a humane amount of time, I had to develop a technique with the thumb and forefinger to examine and then nudge aside each shirt. My haste was increased by the fact that, for some reason, I was the only customer in any of the shops at the time, each of them tucked away up on the third or fourth floor of a tiny block of retail units, away from the main shopping streets.

For some reason, being the only potential customer in a shop compels you to wear a sort of earnest frown of concentration as you inspect an item, and move at a very slow but very deliberate stroll that says “I’m just looking, but I might buy something, I might” until you get to the safety of the doorway and can run away. No running away from here, though. The kid-in-a-sweet-shop scene was completed as my wife briefly became my mother - “you sure you want that one?” - as I eventually meandered towards the till.

Faced with almost every item of clothing that a 10-year-old me could ever have dreamed of, exchange rate calculations became a hopeless task. It turns out that, when you’re holding AC Milan (1992/93 home, long sleeves, #9, mine for a cool ¥9,999) the only numbers your brain can divide by 144 (correct at time of writing) are 144, 144,000 and 144,000,000.

Here’s another nostalgia-busting revelation. Football shirts from c.1985-1998 are the stuffiest clothing ever made. You sweat within milliseconds of trying them on, and not just from sheer excitement. They also smell just right - not new, nor musty, but uncannily like your parents’ loft.

Within the space of three days, I’d Google Mapped my way to three of the four branches across two major cities, thumb-and-forefingered through about a kilometre of plastic hangers, and managed to keep my outlay in yen to within a mere five figures. HAGI #10 was neatly packed away in a sealed plastic bag alongside Germany (1994 away, KLINSMANN #18) and - worryingly, the shirt that fits best - Sweden (1994 away, BROLIN #11) to complete the perfect hat-trick of retro rarities - all originals, all in utterly mint condition.

The selection process - while acutely aware that I’d probably never, ever have access to this treasure trove again - was brutal. Back on the rail went Gascoigne’s Euro ‘96 shirt (we’re all over that now, we all did the retrospective blogs last year), Romario’s Barcelona #10 from 1994/95 (not Kappa’s finest moment) and an armful of Brazilian club shirts (Sao Paulo, Palmeiras, Flamengo, Cruzeiro, and the rest) with No.10 on the back, which - almost regardless of the year - meant it had been worn by someone fucking amazing. Also passed up: Coventry ‘87, Sampdoria ‘93, the Laos national team’s goalkeeper top (year unknown), and virtually every home and away shirt worn by Hidetoshi Nakata, which ensured disproportionate stock levels of Bolton shirts.

The holy grail, though, was proving elusive. Osaka Guy shrugged its shoulders, Shibuya Guy said it might be in the Kichijoji branch. Guided by the best £4.99 of data roaming charges ever spent, I got the train to Kichijoji. My last hope. The last chance of finding Nagoya Grampus Eight (1993 home, #10).

Distracted briefly by Denmark ‘86 away - seriously, go to Japan, it’s amazing - I got to work on the dedicated J League rail, crashing through your JEF Uniteds and your Shimizu S-Pulses in an increasingly desperate search for the red-and-yellow of Grampus Eight. Again, the only person in that shop who wasn’t paid to be there, I saw a hanger with “1993” marked in biro and whipped it off the rail.

You are cordially invited to look at my little face:

What am I going to do with all of these shirts? Frame them? The only place you find framed football shirts are John Terry’s house or Ryman League Division One clubhouses. Sell them? There might be a healthy profit to be made, but that feels a bit cynical. That leaves the only acceptable option: wear one of them to 5-a-side every Wednesday. That rules out the Nagoya Grampus Eight, on the basis that it looks like it would dissolve if it was fully exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.

The upshot of all this is that I’m now just one Diana Ross and one sunburnt Jack Charlton away from hosting USA ‘94 in my own flat this summer. I have no doubt that Holland ‘88, France ‘82 and Maradona ‘86 are hanging proudly in their fourth branch, out in far-flung western Tokyo somewhere. I’ll go back.

In the meantime, I need a bin liner.