TOKYO – Thousands of police, including riot troops armed with net-guns and water cannons, mobilized Friday ahead of the highly anticipated England-Argentina match in northern Japan, determined to ensure that Asia's first World Cup isn't marred by hooliganism.
So far, the world's most popular sport has enjoyed a peaceful tournament. But the biggest test comes Friday evening when the bitter rivals, whose fans have a long history of soccer stadium violence, face off for control of soccer's so-called "Group of Death" — its top tier of teams.
During the 1998 World Cup in France, hundreds of overzealous fans went on a rampage during the tournament, leaving more than 60 people injured. Avoiding a similar scene is a matter of national pride for this year's co-hosts, Japan and South Korea.
As thousands of fans poured into Sapporo for Friday's game, the mood was mostly festive. Fans on both sides soaked up the sun in a city park or danced down the streets in team jerseys — singing and waving banners.
Local Japanese, more curious than alarmed, eagerly snapped photos of the boisterous visitors, occasionally shielding a snicker or two.
"There has been a lot of preparations for months for the worst case scenario," said Kevin Miles, an organizer of England's "Fan Embassy." "A lot of the population, including the police are a bit nervous... But there is precious little indication of any problems here."
Sapporo has mobilized 7,000 officers to make sure it stays that way. Four English fans were arrested Thursday night on charges ranging from assault to theft, while another 38 British nationals have been denied entry to Japan as suspected hooligans.
So far, fans were relaxed. But stakes will be higher once teams take the field.
Argentina — a favorite to win the World Cup — can qualify for the second round with a victory. A defeat for England, which drew 1-1 with Sweden in its first game, will mean almost certain elimination.
Then there's the years of bad blood between both sides.
"This isn't just another game," Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa said before kickoff. "It's one that carries a lot of history with it, and we won't be ignoring that."
England fans still haven't forgotten Diego Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup, when he apparently used his hand to punch the ball past the keeper in Argentina's 2-1 win over England. Argentina went on to win the title that year.
At France '98, Argentina again knocked out England, winning a penalty-kick shootout 4-3 after a game in which England star David Beckham was controversially ejected.
But bitter feelings stretch back even further over the Falkland Islands War, a 10-week battle in 1982 that left more than 700 Argentines and 200 English soldiers dead.
In Britain, bookies predict more bets could be placed on Friday's England-Argentina showdown than on any other soccer match, with some $16.8 million expected to be wagered.
One oddsmaker has England favored at 11-5 to win, while one rival has Argentina at 11-10 favorites. There were even odds of 10-1 on one or more of the Argentineans shedding tears during or after the game.
While the England-Argentina match was grabbing most of the attention, fellow "Group of Death" team Sweden beat Nigeria 2-1 in the western Japanese city of Kobe. Meanwhile, Spain defeated Paraguay 3-1 in South Korea to clinch a place in the second round.
Even without fans fighting in the streets, this year's organizers are struggling to avoid a different embarrassment — thousands of unsold seats.
Average attendance at the early matches has been below 38,000, considerably off the 43,500 average in France at the same stage, with only 75 percent of the seats filled.
FIFA, soccer's governing body, and organizing committees in both countries have overhauled earlier plans and are now selling tickets over the Internet and by telephone.
The new approach is a hit.
So many fans in Tokyo rang up for tickets that they crashed the transmission system of mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo when sales opened at noon Friday.
Those lucky enough to get through snapped up the 750 tickets remaining for Sunday's Japan-Russia match in 20 minutes, while 1,600 leftover seats for the Italy-Croatia game sold out in 45 minutes.