THIS IS the first time I’ve enjoyed the build-up to Christmas in Japan, and I must admit it’s odd eating sushi and noodles to the accompaniment of Louis Armstrong’s “Winter Wonderland.”
I don’t know why I am surprised, but the Japanese love all the trimmings of the festive season as much as we do.
There’s a Grotto and a big, burly chap in a red coat with a massive white beard, starry-eyed toddlers, tinsel galore and sparkly shop windows everywhere you turn in Yokahama.
Plus, for me, a fantastic hotel bedroom view of the snow-capped Mount Fuji. All very romantic.
The reason I’m here, of course, is the FIFA Club World Cup which I doubt is registering on the Richter scale back home, unlike the minor tremor we experienced here last week which was 5.2.
It’s interesting that the English don’t take this competition seriously, not even when Manchester United won it in 2008, nor when Liverpool lost the 2005 final to Sao Paulo.
Barcelona certainly take it seriously, and over 100 members of their Japanese fan club have been queuing all night outside our hotel where they are staying just to get a glimpse of their heroes – it beats the January sales at Harrods.
Cesc Fabregas told a packed press conference on the eve of Sunday’s final against Santos – which Barcelona won 4-0 with the former Arsenal midfielder among the scorers – of Brazil: “The English are concerned only with the Premier League and the Champions League, but in South America and Spain the Club World Cup is seen as the most important prize to win.
“It is a very difficult trophy to acquire, because to do so you have to be the best on your continent and then you still have to overcome the premier club in South America, usually from Brazil or Argentina.
“We desperately want to be able to sew the emblem from winning the Club World Cup on our shirts to show we are the best in the world.”
Santos were the first Brazilian winners of the competition, then under the guise of the Inter-Continental Cup in 1962, in the days of the one-and-only Pele, and are fittingly on the verge of their centenary season.
Two notes of interest. Santos have scored more goals than any other club in the world – over 11,700 – and their name has been copied by clubs in more than 100 countries.
One privilege for me has been seeing the world’s newest superstar, 19-year-old Neymar, who has already been compared to the legendary Zico by his coach Muricy Ramalho.
He’s certainly a South American version of Cristiano Ronaldo – right down to the step-overs and Brylcreem.
For me though the next true footballing star is Brazil’s newest No 10 Paulo Henrique Ganso, supremely gifted, he reminds me of Zinedine Zidane – minus the head butting.
Opponents simply can’t get the ball off him.
Maybe English clubs will one day recognise this is a competition worth paying more attention to.
I hope so because if Messi, Neymar, Xavi and Elano rate it their priority it’s got something going for it.
WHENEVER I visit India or the Far East I’m struck by people’s wonderful use of the Queen’s English compared to our own feeble efforts.
For example I will never forget a friend called Debayan Sen being so mortified when he threw a volleyball out of the swimming pool onto an unsuspecting ladies plate of king prawns, he splashed across to splutter: “Madame, I am acutely embarrassed by my misguided deeds. I proffer my most humble apologies and will withdraw my presence from the pool immediately.”
During a football match on which he was commentating a striker missed an open goal and Debayan observed: “That was pure folly, it will be to his chagrin forever.”
Marvellous stuff, and I have now found a Japanese answer to Debayan.
During a meal in a restaurant in Nagoya I asked colleague Akire if his fish was good, to which came the reply: “It harmonises perfectly with the chips.”
I have never heard cod and six pennyworth described that way before.
As this is the last column before Christmas may I wish everyone all they would cherish for the festive season, be it at home with the family or on whatever sporting field is their domain.
Most of us are blessed with the lives we lead no matter how we might moan and groan.
The Japanese have shown amazing fortitude in attempting to recover from the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier in the year that claimed thousands of lives.
It was gratifying that Barcelona’s players took time out last week to hand over shirts to youngsters made homeless during the terrible tragedy.
Quite often we don’t realise how lucky we are and how a small act like this can ease the suffering.
Happy Christmas everyone.