Japan thrill sold-out crowd in Blind Football World Championships opener

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There were all the trappings of a national team match; a sellout days in advance, a giant uniform flag festooned with signatures, and the ‘Nippon!’ call echoing from the stands.

Behind the stands, fans lined up to try their hand at penalty kicks, purchase lunch from one of several food trucks, or add to their collection of blue-coloured merchandise.

But after the players shook hands and the referees oversaw the coin toss, a drastic departure from the usual affair: the announcer calling for silence from the crowd during play as the national teams of Japan and Paraguay prepared to open the 2014 IBSA .

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The choice of Tokyo to be the first Asian city to host the competition, which features 12 teams representing four continents, seems obvious. Japan’s capital, reflecting the country’s aging population, boasts a number of barrier-free features on sidewalks, in train stations, and at tourist attractions.

And it’s no surprise that in a country known for having some of the world’s friendliest sports fans, the Japan Blind Football Association (JBFA) was able to mobilise 1,000 fans as well as over 100 volunteers in order to make the opening day a success.

“I’m happy that so many fans have come here today to watch blind football,” Japan Football Association executive director Tsuyoshi Kitazawa told the crowd after the opening procession. “When I first encountered the sport, not many in Japan were familiar with it and I could never imagine that we would be here today.

“I believe that blind football and other Paralympic sports can contribute to society, and that it’s not you or I but the players who can accomplish this.”

JBFA chairwoman Misako Kamamoto then addressed those in attendance: “It is our great honour and pleasure to host these World Championships. It has been my dream to host [this tournament] in Japan, and now that dream has come true.”

Even without the crowd noise one typically associates with the sport, there was plenty of yelling once the action kicked off at Yoyogi National Stadium’s futsal court; by the sighted goalkeepers who at times physically corralled their teammates into position, by the players themselves, and by the coaches and spotters on the sideline and behind the goal.

Adding to the cacophony was the ball itself, filled with a packet of metal ball bearings to allow the players to track its location.

Yet the loudest sound on the pitch may have been the intense collisions with the sideline boards as players contested for the ball. Befitting the nature of the sport itself and of players who were clearly pushing hard for a goal, these impacts were more reminiscent of an ice hockey game than football.

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Japan, silver medallists at the Asian Para Games in Incheon earlier this year, showed a strong defensive formation and frequently sent out a lone attacker. It was efficient against Paraguay’s 2-2 set-up, and the scoreless deadlock was broken with five minutes remaining in the 25-minute half by Tomonari Kuroda’s tremendous solo run. As players and coaches hugged on the sidelines, fans broke into cheers – until asked once again to tone it down during play.

Both sides came out of halftime looking for another goal, but although Paraguay earned a number of corner kicks they were unable to break down a Japan side who, for what it’s worth, defended far better than their Samurai Blue counterparts have in recent months.

Then, at long last, referee Mariano Travaclino blew the final whistle and the hosts celebrated a well-deserved three points against their Group A opponents.

“This has been the best crowd we’ve ever had supporting us,” Kuroda told fans behind the goal via megaphone. “I hope you’ll keep following us through the group stage and all the way to the final.”

After several more rounds of cheering, the stands emptied; some headed for the exits, others to buy tickets for Japan’s two remaining group stage games this week. Some refreshed their drinks and chatted with friends ahead of the day’s second match, a Francophile face-off between France and Morocco that ended in a scoreless draw.

The favorites to win may be defending champions Brazil, who despite the eye masks are capable of demonstrating tiki-taka skills worthy of Barcelona’s jealousy. But on this day, the hosts looked more than capable of living up to the words of a banner strung across the stand: “We are Japan; we can do anything.”

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