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Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Japanese gripped by Man Utd fever

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News, Yokohama

Cristiano Ronaldo, who made United's winning goal, with the trophy
Cristiano Ronaldo, who made United's winning goal, with the trophy

"Here to see United, you're only here to see United," has been the theme chant of Manchester United's small but noisy band of travelling supporters here at the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan.

And - despite a partisan hardcore support for Gamba Osaka in United's 5-3 semi-final stroll on Thursday - most Japanese have wanted to see the stars of Old Trafford, particularly the swaggering Cristiano Ronaldo, in action.

From middle-aged housewives to shady young locals sporting sunglasses and tattoos, everyone here - in the absence of a glamour club from South America - has wanted to be associated with the English champions.

And it is not just at the Yokohama stadium that United-fever has taken a grip over the past three days.

Here in the centre of Japan's second-largest city a sizeable section on the eighth floor of iconic department store Sogo has been put aside for the sale of official Manchester United merchandise up until Christmas Day.

And, on the day of the Club World Cup final, the Old Trafford club's scarves, badges, calendars, DVDs and other products have been flying off the shelves there like hot cakes.

"This will make a good Christmas present for my boyfriend," said Akiko Nakamura, 24, from Tokyo, brandishing a Red Devils T-shirt proudly.

606: DEBATE

The Japanese have taken this expanded event, which since 2005 has superseded their own Europe v South America Toyota Cup competition, very seriously and affectionately indeed.

And they have every right to do so, as they rescued the then moribund intercontinental contest between the two major football continents back in the 1980/81 season.

So it is no surprise that the Fifa event here has garnered huge coverage in the Japanese newspapers and television, and with near to 300 local media representatives at both the semi-finals and final.

Meanwhile, for United this jaunt has represented a more pleasing experience than their ill-fated trip to play in the first Fifa Club World Championship in Brazil in 2000.

That trip garnered United a lot of bad publicity for pulling out of the FA Cup (they were holders at the time), and they crashed out of the contest in the first round, memorably falling victim to a Romario-inspired Vasco da Gama of Brazil.

Neither were they feted by the locals as they have been here in Japan.

The narrow streets a kilometre away from the stadium have been packed with sellers - both official and unofficial - of United merchandise.

Next to official licensed stands selling MUFC products have been sellers with piles of cheap replica shirts made in south-east Asia.

Japanese fans of Manchester United at the final
Japanese fans of Manchester United enjoying their side's victory

Sales of shirts with Ronaldo's name on the back have been doing a brisk trade, both in the official and unofficial versions.

As have Manchester United Christmas antlers, with one either confused or die-hard Japanese pensioner opting to put the novelty items on to his dog's head.

Outside the stadium the catering vans have been selling an ad-hoc 'British menu' of Scotch broth soup, beef rolls, and scones with jam (but not a prawn sandwich in sight).

Lit up at night on its raised position, the stadium has looked like a giant spaceship, waiting to host its very own close encounter.

And inside the stadium United's 10 men played their part, edging out the Ecuadorian club's cautious counter-attacking formation in a cagey 1-0 win, with Sir Alex Ferguson outwitting Argentine coach Edgar Bauza, who was in charge of LDU for the last time.

"I am so glad to see Manchester United win this cup because I love Premier League football which we watch every week on television here in Japan," said an excited Nozomi Kamata, 28, from Yokohama, after the game.

Now the Fifa caravan moves on to the Middle East, with the next two Club World Championships being held in Abu Dhabi.

It remains to be seen if a crowd of 30,000-plus fans there will turn out in the middle of a storm as the Japanese did at the mostly uncovered National Stadium for the game between Pachuca and Quito last week.

Meanwhile the small band of Manchester United fans have been singing a new song to teach their Japanese admirers.

"We're champions of England, champions of Europe - champions of the world."

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see also
Liga de Quito 0-1 Man Utd
21 Dec 08 |  Man Utd
Liga de Quito v Man Utd photos
21 Dec 08 |  Man Utd
Tim Vickery column
21 Dec 08 |  Football
Real test begins now for Man Utd
22 Dec 08 |  Man Utd


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