Bishan is Japan country

One by one they streamed into the Bishan Stadium yesterday and it immediately became apparent this was not just another football team in town.

Every Japanese player was greeted with shrieks and shouts from an excited crowd of approximately 300 that had assembled to catch a glimpse of their heroes.

They saved the best for last, as captain Makoto Hasebe, followed by AC Milan star Keisuke Honda and Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki, entered the stadium to the loudest cheers.

Many had found out through word of mouth where and when the Samurai Blue would be holding their first training session ahead of their World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier on Thursday at the National Stadium.

One hundred lucky Japanese elementary international schoolchildren even had the opportunity to step onto the field for a photo opportunity with the country's brightest football stars. Once the niceties were done, the mood immediately changed as Japan began their mission to claim maximum points against Singapore.

Coach Vahid Halilhodzic quickly separated his squad into groups, with Honda and Okazaki restricted mainly to light running following their recent exertions with their clubs over the weekend, and the tiring long flight from Europe.

While this meant there was not as much real football action, it did not seem to deter the fans, who stayed on right till the end in the hope of acquiring an autograph or even just a wave from their favourite players.

Yukata Sekikawa, who works in the legal industry, was at Bishan with his two young daughters.

The 34-year-old said being in Singapore actually made it easier to catch Japan in action.

While Honda is his favourite player, he believes the attention the playmaker will receive from the Lions will present opportunities for others to emerge as the game changer on Thursday. "I bought tickets for the game almost as soon as they were on sale," he told the New Paper.

"It's actually very difficult to get tickets for a game in Japan because they're always sold out… It's much easier in Singapore and definitely more affordable.

"I was surprised with the 0-0 (between the two sides in Saitama) but the Singapore goalkeeper (Izwan Mahbud) played really well.

"Honda is a very important player but I think the Singapore team will be marking him a lot, which will open things up for (Yoshinori) Muto or (Shinji) Kagawa."

Tokyo native Kaori Catherall, who turned up with her six-year-old daughter Maya, failed to catch her favourite Kagawa as the Borussia Dortmund star was only flying in hours later.

One person Kagawa would be familiar with is Kenjiro Ogino, his former Cerezo Osaka teammate who was one of many Albirex Niigata (S) players present at Bishan yesterday.

The goalkeeper, who also lists Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takumi Minamino and Hotaru Yamaguchi as his friends, is confident there will be no repeat of June's stalemate.

"That result was a big surprise but I think Japan will win it this time," the 24-year-old told TNP.

"I'm predicting a 3-0 win to Japan with Kagawa scoring two goals and Honda adding another."


This article was first published on Nov 10, 2015.
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