“Since we won the Libertadores lots of people have been telling me that it doesn’t matter if we win the league or the Copa Sudamericana; what they really want is the Club World Cup,” said River Plate left-back Leonel Vangioni, in conversation with FIFA.com. “Wherever we went the first thing they spoke about was Japan.”
Though Vangioni is still feeling the effects of the jetlag caused by the 12-hour time difference between Argentina and Japan, he is exactly where every member of the River Plate community has wanted to be since the team booked their place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015. The tournament is such an obsession for Los Millonarios that what he has to tell FIFA.com is but the slightest indication of the Japanese fever that has gripped the Argentinian club since it lifted the Copa Libertadores on a rainy early August night in Buenos Aires .
One chant stood out above all others that evening at the Estadio Monumental: “Yes sir,” sang the fans, the decibel level increasing with every word, “The Doll [River coach Marcelo Gallardo] is leading us to Japan.” Though River’s form has left something to be desired since that heady night, the chant has resurfaced at every match since then, its significance only partly explained by the importance attached by River fans to the Club World Cup and by their appreciation for their coach, a club idol in his playing days and now a tactical guru. What has lent it an additional sentimental power is the fact the 2015 tournament is being played in Japan, a country that is nothing short of an obsession for many Argentinians, the ultimate goal.
“Those live broadcasts early in the morning,” said veteran midfielder Luis Lucho Gonzalez, casting his mind back to his childhood days. “I remember the final between Milan and Velez (Sarsfield) [in 1994] and watching River take on Juventus [in 1996].”
“If you were a football fan, you got up at six in the morning to watch the game,” commented Vangioni, recalling the sacrifice fans made watch to live coverage of the Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner of the Club World Cup. For the Argentinian clubs that took on Europe’s finest at Tokyo’s National Stadium through the 1980s and 90s – the likes of Independiente, Argentinos Juniors, Velez Sarsfield, Boca Juniors and River – Japan holds a symbolic importance that no other place on Earth can match and lends an even more magical feel to the competition.
Intercontinental Cup winners in 1986 and runners-up in 1996, Los Millonarios make their return to Japan after a lengthy 19-year absence, a period in the wilderness that even included the unthinkable: relegation to the Argentinian second division, back in 2011.
“I started playing for the club when I was eight and it [River’s obsession with Japan] has been there all the time,” commented Javier Saviola. “The club has always seen it as an opportunity for glory but, if anything, there’s more expectation this time than there was in 96 with Juve.”
A youth-team player at that time, Saviola witnessed what was a glory era for the club, first from the sidelines and then at first hand on the pitch: “Back then River were used to winning titles and having great teams, but then came a spell of several years when the club started to fall away in every sense. The supporters stuck with us through those tough times and became even more fanatical, and now that we’re back enjoying the good times again, they’re experiencing this huge surge of emotion. You can really feel the anxiety in the street.”
That anxiety and desire among the fans is reflected in the chant in honour of their coach and in the huge mosaic of the Japanese flag they unveiled in the stands ahead of September’s Superclásico against Boca. The club itself has not been immune, organising a Japan-themed cultural activity day in October and running a Japan 2015 marketing campaign featuring the players dressed up as samurai warriors.
The squad had earlier set the mood by waving Japanese flags during the open-top bus parade that followed their Libertadores triumph. “I never thought I’d have the chance to play in such an amazing competition,” said a disbelieving Gonzalez. “For us, playing in the Club World Cup is like touching the heavens.”
By the time Gonzalez and his team-mates run out for their semi-final in Osaka on 16 December, it is estimated that 15,000 River fans will have made the trip to Japan, all of them hopeful of then seeing their heroes take on Barcelona in Yokohama four days later with the world title at stake.
“You bumped into people and they’d all say, ‘See you in Japan’,” explained Vangioni. “The support we’re going to have will be amazing and it’s going to give us a lot of strength, which is what happened in the Libertadores in Brazil and Paraguay. The passion and sheer madness of the River fans has really helped us in achieving what we’ve achieved in these last few years.”
Vangioni, aka El Piri, is also confident Barcelona will not have a monopoly on the support of the local fans, a sizeable contingent of whom got behind River when they beat Gamba Osaka in the Suruga Bank Cup in August: “There were a lot of Japanese fans singing River songs. It was pretty crazy, so you can imagine what it’s going to be like in the Club World Cup. It’s going to be great to play in it.”
After a four-month wait that seemed like 19 years, Vangioni and his River cohorts are about to find out just how rarefied the atmosphere of Japan 2015 will be.