TOKYO, July 2, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – When Japan’s Blue Samurai take on Belgium Monday for a spot in the World Cup quarter finals, fans nationwide will pack spots from bars to temples to cheer them on.
They are the undisputed underdogs against star-studded Belgium, but Japan weren’t even expected to qualify from their group after a chaotic and disappointing run up to the tournament.
The team’s surprise turnaround has delighted fans at home, with people determined to stay up and cheer despite a time difference that means Monday’s game starts at 3:00am Tuesday morning local time.
At a sports gear shop in Tokyo, several fans were out stocking up on kit before the game.
“I think there is a chance to win,” said Yuta Makino, predicting Japan would sneak by Belgium 2-1 with goals by Shinji Kagawa and Yuya Osako.
“Since Belgium have a lot of famous players, I want (Japan) to concentrate on defence and look for a window of opportunity,” said Makino, a 19-year-old university student, at an outlet of Soccer Shop KAMO in Tokyo’s entertainment district of Shinjuku.
Hikaru Sasayama, also a university student, was planning to watch at a public viewing at a movie theatre, dressed from head to toe in Japan’s strip.
“I’m afraid Belgium are stronger as they are faster and taller than Japan, but I want to cheer them on loudly from the theatre,” Sasayama said.
Shin Abe, 20, said he expected the whole region would be cheering for Japan, the only Asian team to make it to the last 16.
“I hope Japan will set Asia alight by winning as Asian teams have been defeated every time,” said Abe, who was planning to go a sports bar to watch the game.
Japan entered the competition with low expectations, after a series of disappointing pre-tournament fixtures and the chaotic dismissal of their former coach.
The Japan Football Association unceremoniously canned Vahid Halilhodzic just months before the tournament began, citing communication problems with the team
He denies there were any problems, and is suing the association over his firing.
The upheaval doesn’t appear to have perturbed the team, though new coach Akira Nishino has faced criticism for ordering players to run down the clock in their final game at the group stage, knowing that a 1-0 loss to Poland would be enough to get the Blue Samurai through to the final 16.
While many Japanese will be eager to cheer as loudly and raucously as possible, one viewing venue will be encouraging a more contemplative watching experience.
Tokoji Temple in central Japan’s Shizuoka, will be holding its first ever public football viewing, inviting people to its guest house.
“I’m looking forward to seeing many people visit us and enjoy, as a lot of people are interested in the World Cup,” Taiko Ishida, the 51-year-old chief priest of the Zen temple, told AFP.
“Since it’s a temple and the game is taking place quite early in the morning, we hope people will watch the game calmly without whistles or drums, except when goals are scored,” Ishida said.
The temple plans to offer a special meditation practice as well as rice gruel for viewers after the game, free of charge, the priest said.
“I am quietly wishing for Japan’s victory,” he added.