“I had travelled so far,” remembered Hiroshi Kagawa, a tiny and wrinkled old man whose eyes burn when he talks about football. “It was the Olympiastadion in Munich, the 1974 World Cup final. It’s so vivid in my mind. Johan Cruyff in orange and Franz Beckenbauer in white. I felt so grateful.”

The 1974 tournament was Kagawa’s first as a journalist. He went on to cover nine more in a row, travelling the world from his home in Kobe, Japan. He missed out on South Africa four years ago due to poor health, but now he’s back for his tenth. At 89, he is the oldest member of the press here in Brazil.    

In the buzz and hum of the media workroom at the Arena Pernambuco, Kagawa is still and calm, eyes watching behind thick bifocals. Younger reporters hustle, chasing deadlines and screaming into their mobile phones. His interview with FIFA.com takes over an hour because members of the Japanese media, out of respect for their old master, constantly interrupt. They bring him water and bow, smiling at him as they would their own grandfather. They take his picture and announce, proudly, that they’re his friends. They help him up the many flights of concrete steps to the stadium’s media tribune, where, surrounded by buzzing machinery, charging phones and winking devices of the information age, Kagawa sits with a notepad and a pencil, frozen in time, watching Japan play.

Born in Kobe in 1924, Kagawa was fascinated by the famous port’s visitors from faraway lands. “There is an international feeling in Kobe,” said Kagawa, speaking through a translator and recalling a time before television, long before the internet, when foreign notions arrived slowly and only via the waves. “I met people from different places, all over the globe, and it helped me think of the world as a bigger place.”

An enthusiastic footballer in his youth, he was called for military service in 1944 in the closing years of the Second World War. A kind and creative man, with an eye for the connections between people, Kagawa was thrust into the cockpit of a plane laden with explosives. He trained and flew missions as a Kamikaze pilot. “I was a very lucky man to escape with my life,” he said.

After the agony of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaka, Kagawa turned his attention back to football, to the connections he believed it could forge and the healing it could bring to his devastated country. “Football was something positive in the world and it was something I could do to help Japan,” Kagawa said about his tentative steps into the world of journalism. His first piece was for a Kyoto evening paper, fittingly about Swedish team Helsingborgs’ good-will visit in 1951.

“I wanted Japan to join the world’s top teams and be a part of the larger world of football,” he said. But there were obstacles. Post-war Japan was dominated by an obsession with baseball, an import from America. “Football was very low, behind baseball and even behind rugby,” said Kagawa, who went on to write for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper in Osaka before becoming managing editor of Sankei Sports. “Many believed that we Japanese were too small to play football. There was a lot of pessimism.”

A larger world
He began to travel, first in Asia and then beyond, chasing stories. He saw the passion football generated. When he arrived in West Germany in 1974 it was the culmination of one journey, and the beginning of another. He sat at a desk under the spider-web netting of the old Olympiastadion in Munch, witnessing a turning point in football history. “This game was the genesis of modern football.” Kagawa said. He was inspired.

The first piece he sent back to Japan in a now-famous magazine series called A World Cup Journey reads: “Berti Vogts is a good man.” It’s the opening line only a rascal could write, about the German defender who man-marked the world’s best player at the time, Johan Cruyff, on to the fringes of that famous Final.

Kagawa has since seen the game grow like wildfire in his native land. Thanks to his dispatches and his passion, his desire to illuminate and transmit the virtues of the world’s game, Japan’s football has blossomed. He saw his team qualify for its first World Cup in 1998. “The pride I felt was bigger than you can imagine.” The old reporter, now freelance, has seen his country become the pride of Asia and produce world superstars like Hidetoshi Nakata, as well as flawed geniuses like Kazu Miura. Japanese players now feature at the biggest and best clubs in Europe and his country even hosted a world finals. He has, finally, seen his Japan become part of the fabric of the football world, an elegant panel woven into a vibrant global tapestry.

The interview stops for a moment as the media room erupts in a roar. The deadline hacks huddle around blinking TV screens and Kagawa pushes himself up on the arms of his chair, his nose in the air. England have equalised against Italy in their opener from Manaus, deep in the Amazon.

“Maybe we should finish the interview later,” he says, smiling, in broken English. He would rather watch the game.