When Liverpool and Tottenham enter the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium pitch on Saturday night for the UEFA Champions League final, the 67,000 fans in Madrid won’t be the only ones rapt with anticipation.
Nearly 10,000 km away, Japanese supporters of the two English Premier League clubs will be huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in bars across the country, awaiting the 4 a.m. kickoff and a chance to watch their team be crowned European champions.
“Viewers and fans in Japan are extremely loyal,” says soccer commentator Ben Mabley, an Englishman who has become a familiar voice on Japanese-language Premier League broadcasts over the last seven years. “To watch teams who play in the middle of the night, you have to be. People who have decided ‘this is my team’ will stick with them.”
With England’s reputation as the sport’s birthplace and the EPL’s high level of play, it’s no surprise that so many Japanese fans are attracted to the league.
But while younger fans have gravitated toward the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in recent years, Tottenham and Liverpool are among clubs preferred by fans in their 30s and older.
Liverpool’s history and close-knit relationship with the surrounding community lend themselves to Japanese fans looking to adopt a club. The rise of England star Michael Owen in the late 90’s attracted many fans who discovered the sport around the time of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, while the team’s dramatic comeback win over AC Milan in the Istanbul-hosted 2005 Champions League final caused a sensation through its national broadcast.
“Liverpool is a club with stories,” says Yumiko Tamaru, secretary of Liverpool Supporters Club Japan. “It’s got a great history and many legendary players, but then there were things like Hillsborough which created a deeper sense of unity between the club and supporters. That’s part of the attraction.”
While Japan has not experienced an incident like the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 fans were killed after improper policing led to a crush of spectators at an F.A. Cup semifinal, the story still resonates deeply with fans globally.
“The tragedies that affected the club in the ’80s speak to the heart of Liverpool fans and help to foster a certain identity to people living 6,000 miles away,” says Mabley. “There are various supporter experiences and it’s possible for someone to live on the other side of the world and care just as deeply and be moved just as deeply as someone more local.”
Founded in 1995, LSCJ boasts 270 members and is officially recognized by the club, receiving an annual allocation of around 30 tickets for its members to purchase. Still more — around 400 a season, by the group’s estimates — visit Anfield by purchasing £300 (¥41,600) hospitality packages.
“It’s hard to buy tickets for Anfield because of its capacity, so we help a lot of Japanese fans through the process,” explains Tamaru, who herself travels to Liverpool around twice a season. “For supporters like us who are occasionally visiting as tourists, (hospitality packages) are not that expensive.”
On the other side of the pitch, Tottenham boasts deep ties with Japan. The club faced the Samurai Blue twice in the 1979 and 1991 Kirin Cup tournaments, and legendary former players Osvaldo Ardiles and Steve Perryman were J. League Managers of the Year in 1998 and 1999, respectively, at Shimizu S-Pulse.
Their influence was a crucial factor in midfielder Kazuyuki Toda’s decision to sign with Spurs on loan in 2003, months after impressing for Japan at the 2002 World Cup. This period marked the birth of the club’s Japanese supporter group, Spurs Japan, at a time when Japanese broadcasters focused on the “Big Four” of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
“You could only watch those four teams at the time, and Spurs didn’t have many fans in Japan,” says Kazuhiko Ishikawa, Spurs Japan’s current chairman. “Our mission was to increase our local following or else we wouldn’t be able to watch Spurs on TV.”
Ishikawa compares Tottenham’s ups and downs to the equally dramatic story arcs depicted in popular Japanese sports manga.
“Japanese fans love tales of triumph over adversity,” says Ishikawa. “There’s no appeal in effortless success. This season Tottenham has had to deal with nothing but adversity, but we’ve overcome that and reached the Champions League final and that resonates with a lot of fans.
“Younger fans know Spurs as a strong team, but the older generation have experienced the catharsis of our ‘Spursy’ failures.”
In recent years, Ishikawa has focused Spurs Japan’s efforts on online evangelization, eschewing its initial traditional membership model in favor of a Twitter-based following at @SpursJapan. The account boasts a following of over 148,000 — nearly as many as the combined official Japanese accounts of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
“To create new fans we can’t just write content for Spurs fans; we have to write content for everyone else as well,” says Ishikawa. “So we’ll do things (such as) live-tweet Samurai Blue games and sneak in Spurs trivia or banter as much as possible to get attention.”
Only a handful of Japanese fans are thought to be attending the final in Madrid, and both groups are planning viewing parties.
Spurs Japan will host two events, with a total of 250 fans gathering at two Tokyo venues, while 70 tickets for LSCJ’s Tokyo viewing party sold out in five minutes. According to Tamaru, her group’s Facebook page has fielded a regular stream of inquiries from foreign Liverpool supporters hoping to watch the final in Japan.
“We can generally help people in Tokyo or Osaka, but we’ll get inquiries about Kusatsu (in Gunma Prefecture) or Okinawa and even we don’t know,” laughs Tamaru. “It’s a reminder that Liverpool fans are around the world.”
While Ishikawa and Tamaru will appear together at an event previewing the final on Saturday evening — their groups enjoy an amicable relationship and compete annually in a futsal competition — they decided against a joint viewing party that could end as late as 7 a.m. if the game goes into a penalty shootout.
“Futsal is one thing, but (several years ago) we tried to watch a Liverpool-Spurs game together,” reflects Tamaru. “The atmosphere isn’t great when there’s a winner and loser. We thought it might be okay, but in the end it didn’t work out.”