Barcelona turning heads in Japan
The moment has arrived: Spanish giants Barcelona have touched down on Japanese soil ready to bid for the FIFA Club World Cup 2006. As you would expect, the arrival of the Spanish giants did not go unnoticed, with more than 100 fans making the journey to Tokyo's Narita Airport to welcome the reigning European champions.
The Azulgrana players and coaching staff landed in Japan around 13:00 (local time) on a direct charter flight from the Catalan capital. First to appear in the central arrivals hall were two of Barca's home-grown favourites, keeper Victor Valdes and defender Carles Puyol, although it took the appearance of Brazilian star Ronaldinho to take the roof of the crowded airport. Dressed from head to toe in the club's official sportswear, topped off with a black cap and sunglasses, the samba star was undoubtedly the main attraction for the awestruck fans as well as the more than 50 journalists covering the event.
"I can't believe it, seeing Ronaldinho at such close quarters is a dream come true," said one delighted young girl, who could not have been older than 15. A few metres away, another teenager did his best to take a digital photo of the Cule No.10 with one hand while waving his Barcelona shirt in the other. "I can't wait to see what my mates say when I show them this!" he exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. To one side of him, a man dressed in a suit and tie lamented the fact that, for security reasons, 'Ronnie' would not be signing any autographs.
Once the arrival formalities were completed, the travelling party set off towards their base in Yokohama. The Spanish champions get their campaign underway on Thursday 14 December, with the tournament already at the semi-final stage, against the winners of the tie between Mexican side Club America and Korean outfit Jeonbuk .
Favourites tag shunned
Given the sheer strength and depth of the Barca squad and the team's recent results, it comes as no surprise to see Frank Rijkaard's boys widely tipped to lift this year's FIFA Club World Cup.
Ronaldinho, Deco, Xavi and Co are full of confidence, having sealed their place in the knockout stages of this year's UEFA Champions League, the competition that earned them their ticket to Japan, with a home win over Germany's Werder Bremen last Tuesday. Also this week, the Blaugranas went clear at the top of Spain's Primera Liga with Saturday's 1-0 win over Real Sociedad.
"We're representing Europe, but we prefer not to go into a competition as favourites, as that can often have negative repercussions on the team's attitude and frame of mind," warned the club's sporting director, Aitor Txiki Begiristain, prior to boarding the plane in Barcelona's El Prat airport. That said, the former Spanish international believes that the team are determined to prove their doubters wrong with their performances here in the Far East. "After all our recent problems with injuries, this is the perfect time for us to be challenging for such a prestigious trophy."