It was celebrations all around in Victoria as all four participants playing their final Canada 2007 group matches in the west coast city qualified for the knockout rounds. With Zambia's 2-0 defeat of Uruguay putting both sides into the Round of 16 as second and third-placed teams from Group B, and Japan and Nigeria already through from Group F before their 0-0 draw, there were plenty of smiles and songs to be heard around Royal Athletic Park on Saturday night.
The happiest were the Japanese and their many supporters, who earned the right to stay in their home base despite a relatively fortuitous draw with the Flying Eagles. The wild post-match celebrations may have seemed odd following a nail-biting draw, but given how much Japan wanted to stay here and how close they have come to their supporters in this Asian-tinged city, the jubilation was to be expected.
As they have after both of their previous group wins, the players lined up en masse to salute their block of vociferous fans with a chant and a choreographed dance routine seemingly stolen from a martial arts video tape. Afterwards, the players long lingered on the edge of the stands to sign autographs, pose for pictures and soak up the well wishes from their growing contingent of rabid, blue-clad worshipers.
"We are very happy to stay here," Japanese captain Yohei Fukumoto said after the match with a smile. "We know everything here, including the pitch, we are used to the routine. And, of course, we seem to have a lot of support here." It was a sentiment echoed precisely by all of the players and coaches before they drove off in their team bus into the lovely Pacific sunset singing and celebrating.
A long way from Africa
The day's real winners in terms of momentum were Zambia, newcomers to this royal city after playing their first two matches across the bay outside of Vancouver. And though they will quickly be heading out the next morning for their date with Nigeria in Ottawa, the Zambians had a pocket of fans - and a requisite drummer or two - as well.
"Well, we obviously have good feelings about Victoria," admitted Copper Bullet coach George Lwandamina with a wink as if to say "what's not to like" after racking up their first win of the tournament in the cool, sunny climate, having been in town only a couple of days.
However, the loudest support for any of the teams came from the Nigerian supporters group, whose almost Sambaesque band has blasted around the stadium on all of the matchdays. And while they are disappointed to have missed out on the group lead, thus forcing them to leave Victoria, the Flying Eagles leave nothing but positive thoughts to the town they have been based in since 10 days before the tournament began.
"We love it here," said striker Brown Ideye before the match. "We have been here so long that when we see people they come up and ask us for autographs and want to take pictures with us. Nigeria! Nigeria! is all we here. It is truly like we have made many brothers and sisters here."
"I can only wish them all of the luck in the world," said a beaming green-and-white clad supporter named Grace after the match. "We are just sorry that they will leave us now, but they are going to keep playing and that's all that matters."