Disappointed by the failure of their team to mount a challenge for the J.League title, Yokohama F. Marinos fans can at least console themselves with the thought that their home town will shortly be hosting a showpiece match on the international football calendar.
The International Stadium Yokohama will provide the setting for this Sunday’s FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012 final, the latest major happening at a venue that was built less than 20 years ago but has rich history nevertheless.
“I’ve seen some great players here,” said F. Marinos’ Brazilian striker Marquinhos, in conversation with FIFA.com. “It’s a historic stadium and it’s got all the facilities too. It’s a good place to play and it’s only natural that it should be hosting a game as big as this. It’s that kind of ground.”
The stadium, which will also host Thursday’s semi-final between Chelsea and Monterrey, occupies a special place in the history of Brazilian football. It was here, ten years ago, that Ronaldo scored twice in leading A Seleção to victory over Germany in the Final of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
“I was playing for [Tokyo] Verdy at the time,” added the Brazilian, a multiple league champion in his 11 seasons in Japan. “I came here the following year and it was very emotional for me to walk out on to the pitch. Even if I’d been playing for another team, it would have been special for me to play here. But to be able to run out for the home side, win the title and score in the same goal as Ronaldo...well, words can’t describe it.”
A fast-growing game
After that initial loan spell in 2003, Marquinhos returned to the Yokohama club this year, though his team-mate and fellow countryman Dutra has even closer links to the city. Formerly with Santos, Sport, Coritiba and a number of other Brazilian clubs, the left-back spent six seasons here between 2001 and 2006 before, like Marquinhos, returning this year.
An interesting feature of football in Yokohama is the number of women who flock to games and even training sessions, while families are a common sight at matches. The sport is flourishing at youth level, with more and more football academies sprouting up across the city and amateur youth tournaments also on the increase.
Baseball is still Japan’s number-one sport in terms of the fanbase and media coverage, but football’s well on the way to becoming just as important.
As Dutra told FIFA.com, the local football scene has changed dramatically since he first arrived: “Baseball is still Japan’s number-one sport in terms of the fanbase and media coverage, but football’s well on the way to becoming just as important.”
That growth in the game’s popularity is reflected by the changing behaviour of Japanese football fans, as Marquinhos explained: “Japanese people are pretty quiet, reserved and respectful and they don’t get that carried away. They’re not like the fans in Brazil, for example, where people are crazy about the game. They’ve got a few sports here, though football’s starting to get bigger and bigger now. Supporters get more involved these days. They’re getting into it more and really enjoying it.”
A home away from home
Football aside, Yokohama offers locals and visitors all the attractions you would expect of a big city and more, including shopping centres, restaurants catering for every taste, culturally diverse districts, ancient temples, parks and a waterfront that Dutra believes is well worth a visit.
“There’s plenty for tourists, and the Minato Mirai area has a lot of lovely hotels and a beautiful waterfront where you can take a boat trip,” he said. “The city and its people are very welcoming and very respectful. You always get a lot of foreigners coming and going here and it’s a great place to live too.”
All of which no doubt contributed to the 39-year-old defender’s decision to leave the comforts of his native Brazil behind and make his return to the Far East. “We always plan to end our careers close to home, at the club where it all started," he said. "But things didn’t work out that way there and so I came here. I feel happy, though. I feel welcome. This place is home for me too.”
Prior to Sunday’s final, the F. Marinos have an important engagement of their own, a fourth-round Emperor’s Cup tie against Urawa Red Diamonds on Saturday, after which thoughts will inevitably turn to next season and a showing in the league that will be more in keeping with the club’s proud tradition.
“That’s what we were hoping for this year,” said Marquinhos. “Our coach is doing a good job, but we can’t afford to mess things up. This is a big club and it has to be right in the thick of the title fight.”