SAITAMA – The possibility exists that Tuesday’s Rakuten Cup match between Barcelona and Chelsea was being considered by some influential soccer figure or another as an audition for Japan’s inclusion in the increasingly popular International Champions Cup, the international preseason tournament that is currently taking place across six countries on three continents.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to argue that the performance was good enough for a callback.
The first-ever match between two European sides in Japan, which finished 2-1 in favor of the Premier League representatives, would have struggled under normal circumstances to match the last four months of Rakuten-generated hype.
But an unenthusiastic crowd that remained stone silent for long stretches of the match was reflective of the hurdles of organizing a marquee international friendly in a country that loves soccer, but only when it knows who it’s cheering for.
Both fans and broadcasters were surely disappointed that Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were given reprieves from the team’s Japan tour following their extended national team duties in this summer’s Copa America.
Japan’s domestic media outlets weren’t even given the consolation prize of a strong local angle after Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was forced to leave Hiroki Abe, the Japanese striker who recently signed with the club’s reserve team, off the matchday squad.
“Even if I could not use (Abe) today, maybe I can use him in our second match (against Vissel Kobe on Saturday),” said Valverde, suggesting that Abe had recovered from the knock to his thigh.
Chelsea’s players looked markedly improved in comparison to their jet-lagged performance against Kawasaki Frontale last Friday, while Barcelona lived up to the role of a team that had just landed in Japan on Sunday and was still finding its bearings.
“We’ve had two very competitive games here in humidity and difficult conditions,” Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said after the match. “It’s a good test for the players and the tour has helped us.”
While Barcelona’s blockbuster summer signing Antoine Griezmann drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd, he simply doesn’t have the star power that was needed to fill thousands of seats that remained empty at Saitama Stadium.
Ridiculous ticket prices — with regular seats starting at ¥15,000 and rising all the way up to ¥70,000, to say nothing of ¥200,000 VIP packages — likely prevented many parents from bringing the same children that Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani claimed in March would be inspired by the presence of two top European clubs.
Mikitani likely saw Tuesday’s game as the warm-up act, with Saturday’s encounter between Barcelona and his own Vissel Kobe at Noevir Stadium as the main event. With Andres Iniesta and David Villa wearing Kobe crimson rather than Barcelona’s blaugrana, and all 22 players on the pitch bearing the Rakuten logo on their chests, it’s hard to blame him.
Beyond a reminder in the form of Iniesta and Villa that the J. League is attractive enough to draw top-tier talent, the Vissel-Barcelona game should offer songs, chants, and color — all of which was basically missing in Saitama.
While the announced crowd of 51,126 was certainly strong for a weeknight, less stratospheric prices would have enabled a strong sellout and perhaps a more lively crowd, with or without Messi on the pitch.
Tuesday’s poor atmosphere contrasted strongly with Friday’s friendly between Chelsea and Kawasaki, which featured supporters of the defending J. League champions in full voice and reminded the world why Japanese fans have a reputation of being some of the sport’s most entertaining.
Neutrals can look forward to more of that on Saturday at Nissan Stadium, where Yokohama F. Marinos will host Manchester City in what should be a celebratory lovefest between two clubs under the City Football Group umbrella.
Certainly those two matches are less likely to have broken the bank — tickets for Kawasaki-Chelsea started at an affordable ¥3,000, while the Yokohama-City game has a floor of ¥5,000. Both games also offered discounted tickets for children, an option not available for Tuesday’s affair.
“It is always great to come to Japan and (get) the welcome we receive,” Lampard said. “For the club that’s important and it’s been nice for us.”
It’s not the first time that sentiment has been echoed by managers of top European clubs visiting Japan, nor will it be the last.
A generation of soccer fans in the country were raised on Kirin Cup tournaments featuring a mix of clubs and national teams from around the world between the late 1970s and early ’90s, while Barcelona, Chelsea, and Real Madrid have all made the trek east in the eight years to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup.
But this week’s friendlies are making it apparent that if nothing is at stake, soccer in Japan will benefit more from the exposure gained from European clubs taking on Japanese clubs rather than each other.