Last summer, I got used to eating raw fish and sitting on heated toilet seats – yes, I went to Japan on holiday.
Don’t worry though, I’m not going to bore you with a slideshow of my holiday pictures nor go on a ten minute rant about how great the bullet trains are (but seriously, they’re great!). I’m still going to talk about football and the World Club Cup, which is taking place in the land of the rising sun this week.
Football is one of the most popular professional sports in Japan, with only baseball and the traditional sport of the nation, sumo wrestling, attracting more attention.
An international match between Japan and Oman was played while I was on holiday near Kyoto and the television coverage of the game started not half an hour but about six hours before kick off!
The varied programme included a tour around every possible room and detail of the Saitama stadium, which was packed full of over sixty thousand colourful supporters in good time for the game.
The biggest strength of the game in Japan is the popularity of the women’s football following recent successes, like winning the Women’s World Cup last year in a memorable game against the United States and reaching the final at the Olympic Games at London 2012, this time losing to America.
If you go to a sports shop in Tokyo, it’s easier to buy the women’s national team’s kit than it is to buy the equivalent for the men’s team.
There’s also a long-running Japanese connection with worldwide club competitions, as the Intercontinental Cup was held in the country for over twenty years, with the winning teams of Europe and South America’s continental competitions meeting annually in Tokyo.
My team, Chelsea, have made the long journey east to represent Europe this time and I hope we have a better time than a few other British teams who’ve played in the competition.
Who can forget Manchester United deciding to travel to Brazil in 2000 and not defending the FA Cup, one of the jewels of the Treble crown?
They were supposed to be helping the FA and their attempt to hold the World Cup in 2006 by supporting the competition, which was being held for the first time under the auspices of FIFA, but it was an embarrassing episode for the club.
After being heckled by the British press for devaluing the FA Cup, the tournament turned out to be a disappointment on the pitch too, with United coming home empty-handed after finishing third out of four in the preliminary group.
Things didn’t go much better for Rafa Benitez and Liverpool in 2005 too, when they lost to Sao Paulo in the final, at the International Stadium in Yokohama.
The very same stadium is the home of the final again this year and the scorer of the winning goal for Sao Paulo was Mineiro, a midfielder who later spent a season with Chelsea. There are connections everywhere if you dig deep enough!
With a series of important games on the horizon between now and the New Year in the league and both cups, we’ll see how strong a team Benitez will be playing on Thursday morning in the semi-final against Monterrey of Mexico.
Benitez could write his name in the history books if he led Chelsea to victory at Yokohama by becoming the first manager ever to win the competition with two different clubs, having lifted the trophy with Internazionale in 2010.
I hope the manager and the club take the competition seriously – we might have lost our crown as Champions of Europe after last week’s disappointments, but at least we could still sing that we’re Champions of the World!