Barca boosted by Penya Japan
Of the six teams taking part at FIFA Club World Cup 2006, it is Spanish side FC Barcelona that have really captured the imagination of the football-mad Japanese fans. For many, this year's prestigious tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the star-studded Blaugranas first hand.
In recent years Gamba Osaka, J.League champions for the first time in 2005, have consciously modelled their attacking play on the tactics of the Catalan giants. With coach Akira Nishino showing his players Barca videos not just on the team bus but even at meal-times, it is perhaps no surprise that Nishino's boys in blue have themselves acquired a reputation for attacking excellence.
Japanese fans visiting FC Barcelona's official website can now find all the latest Cule news in their own language, while those wishing to take their support of the reigning European champions up a notch can join Penya Japan, the Japanese branch of the official supporters' club. Expectation levels are high among members of the Penya, established in 2004 and active since last year, as they await a rare opportunity to see their beloved Barca play competitively on East Asian soil.
The main men behind the Penya Japan are Ryo Matoji and Kaoru Endo, both of whom lived in the Catalan capital in the late 1990s. Regular visitors to the Camp Nou during their time in Spain, the pair gradually got to know a whole host of Barca sympathisers in the local Japanese community. Whether they were students or office workers, these exiled Japanese all shared a common bond - their love of all things Blaugrana.
The years between 2000 and 2002 saw many of this informal group trickle back to Japan, all bearing fond memories of their time spent in the stands of the Camp Nou. Once back in their homeland, these dedicated supporters quickly hit upon the idea of establishing an official organisation to show their love for the club. The proud founders of the Penya soon won over any doubters with their sheer enthusiasm and persistence, overcoming a number of organisational and funding obstacles which included a long and drawn-out application process requiring a veritable raft of messages between the two distant countries.
According to Matoji, the Penya Japan currently has around 100 members. "We're mostly just everyday people with a variety of jobs, scattered all over Japan. It's difficult to plan any big events but whenever there's a Barcelona game on we get together to watch in sports bars. Also, groups of us meet to play futsal and things like that."
Other Penyes may boast a much larger membership, but few Cules can match their Japanese counterparts for passion and dedication. Take the case of Samuel Eto'o, Barca's talismanic front man currently sidelined with a long-term knee injury. To help their idol on the road back to full fitness, Penya Japan decided to send Eto'o a special Japanese get-well gift: 1000 paper cranes threaded on a single string. That is only the beginning of the story. First of all the club's members had to track down origami paper to match the team's famous Blaugrana jerseys. Then, working through the night, they made not just one but three strings with a total of 3,000 hand-folded paper cranes. Finally, to add a touch of divine energy to their own heartfelt prayers for the Cameroon international striker's quick recovery, they had the paper cranes blessed at the Kanda Myojin shrine in Tokyo before sending them off to Spain.
Another Barca star missing out through injury is Lionel Messi, but Kaoru Endo and his fellow Penya members have not forgotten the fleet-footed Argentine youngster: "We're planning to display a special message for Messi on the day of the match." Endo also hinted at a number of other surprises over in the Category 4 seats: "I can't tell you what they are right now, but look out for them at the stadium."
Convinced that the boys in red-and-blue will be lifting the trophy in Yokohama, the Penya members have already snapped up their tickets for Sunday's final. In return for such a show of faith, Matoji and his fellow Blaugranas are expecting great things from Frank Rijkaard's talented charges: "They'll have to win it in style. If they don't, we won't hesitate to boo them off the pitch."
Looking ahead to Barca's opening game against Club America , Matoji's feelings of optimism are clouded somewhat by the inclusion of a certain former Argentina international in the opposition ranks. "It's Claudio Lopez, you see. He played for Valencia from 1996 to 2000. During the 1998-98 season Barcelona lost three games in a row against Valencia with him in the side, so this match is kind of like a date with destiny for us Barca fans. But we're still going to win - I'm certain of it!"
Having been backed by most observers as heavy favourites to take the coveted FIFA Club World Cup title, and with the passionate support of the Penya Japanbehind them, the pressure is on Ronaldinho and Co. to add yet another piece of silverware to their already-packed trophy cabinet.