With so many Japanese football fans passionate supporters of top European and South American teams, the FIFA Club World Cup Japan is a major highlight in the nation's sporting calendar.
Above and beyond the upcoming fixtures involving global superpowers AC Milan and Boca Juniors, or even home favourites Urawa Red Diamonds, local spectators have turned out in large numbers to cheer on less well-known sides in the tournament's opening two matches. The Japanese public has set out to enjoy the occasion to the full, and do their utmost to welcome squads from all over the world to this celebration of football.
Scheduled just a week after the curtain came down on the domestic league campaign, the FIFA Club World Cup is the perfect way to cap an exciting year of football. Holding the competition at such a time helps the drama and momentum from the end of the J. League season carry over to the showpiece club event. With this year marking the third time the contest has been held in Japan in its current format, the competition continues to gain in recognition across planet football. These two factors combined have led to a strong increase in ticket sales.
This increase was clear right from the opening fixture, Friday night's match pitting Iran's Sepahan against New Zealand's Waitakere United drawing an impressive 25,000 spectators. Sepahan, in particular, were well-supported as, after having competed against Japanese outfits Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale in this year's AFC Champions League, players such as Moharram Navidkia are now household names among Asian football fans.
As if to illustrate that point, FIFA.com spotted a Japanese couple wearing the colours of the Iranian club, beaten finalists in the continental competition. "We watched them play in the Asian Champions League final against Urawa, so we now feel a certain affinity for them. It also makes it more interesting when you take sides, so we decided to root for Sepahan today," explained the pair.
Another Sepahan backer was wearing a yellow "Revenge on the Reds" T-shirt, and was delighted to reveal the reasoning behind the slogan: "It's not that I'm anti-Reds by any means. It's just that I know Sepahan really want to get their own back for losing to Urawa, so I'd like them to win (against Waitakere) and come up against the Reds one more time."
Lesser-known Waitakere United, meanwhile, appeared to have almost no notable local backing at the outset of the match only for the underdogs' fierce second-half fightback to arouse an eruption of vocal support - particularly from fans behind the Kiwis' goal. "They're only amateur players, so I was inspired by the way they competed with so much fight," said one young lady, in praise of the plucky New Zealanders. After the match, head coach Chris Milicich and his charges underlined just how grateful they were for the fans' tremendous enthusiasm.
This wave of excitement continued into Sunday afternoon when 35,000 spectators watched Tunisia's Etoile Sportive du Sahel take on Mexico's Pachuca in the tournament's second match. Joining a group of supporters who had travelled all the way from Latin America, several Japanese fans who had once studied in Mexico also came to cheer on the Tuzos. "When we heard that a club from Mexico was going to be here, we all decided to come and cheer on the team," said one of the group's members. Other Pachuca fans included a man who became an ardent admirer of the country's highly technical brand of football after a visit to Mexico.
Etoile on the other hand, enjoyed the backing of an animated group of younger fans. Continuously chanting "Africa's number-one team!" in Japanese, their contagious fervour drew in nearby spectators who somehow also found themselves on the side of the African champions.
As the spirit and passion of the last few days continues to build, a great deal of momentum is already in place for the competition's remaining matches. One thing is for sure, when the world's number-one club side are crowned on Sunday 16 December in Yokohama, the celebrations are guaranteed to be very special indeed.