TEHRAN – Japan may take to the field in a neutral venue in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, but with millions of displaced Afghanis living in Iran, Vahid Halilhodzic’s team will still expect a hostile reception.
Around 80,000 Afghanistan fans packed into the stadium in March, drowning out the home spectators in an Under-22 international against Iran.
For Tuesday’s game, crowd segregation means there will likely be only 30,000-40,000 spectators in attendance, but Japanese players have had their share of eye-opening experiences at the Azadi Stadium in the past.
Toshiya Fujita and Takashi Fukunishi played at the stadium with J. League club Jubilo Iwata when they beat Iran’s Esteghlal 2-1 to win the 1999 Asian Club Championship final.
“I remember the stadium. In fact I probably won’t ever forget it,” Fukunishi said in 2005 before Japan played a 2006 World Cup qualifier against Iran at the stadium — a match which saw five spectators crushed to death after the home team’s 2-1 victory.
“I looked around me and all you could see was men. And firecrackers were being thrown on to the pitch.” he said.
Fujita said, “It was certainly weird. There were stones and tomatoes and all manner of things being thrown on the pitch. I even had a dead pigeon land next to me.”
Afghanistan has three points from two games in second-round qualifying Group E, one behind Japan, which picked up its first win on Thursday by beating Cambodia 3-0.
Afghanistan head coach Slaven Skeledzic, who has coached many Bundesliga club youth teams including Hiroki Sakai’s Hannover, told German daily Bild he hopes his team can produce a shock.
“If we played them (Japan) 10 times, nine times we would get thrashed, so hopefully this is the remaining one,” said the German-Bosnian coach.
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