Here to cheer: lucky few allowed for Olympic football

Sendai (Japan) (AFP) – Koji Abe has never been to a football match before, but on Saturday he’ll see his first and become one of the few in Japan to watch the Olympics in person.

Strict coronavirus rules mean spectators are banned from almost all Olympic venues.

The Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony unfolded in a virtually empty Olympic Stadium, with fewer than 1,000 VIPs in the 68,000-capacity arena.

The capital is under a virus state of emergency because of rising infections, and several other regions hosting Olympic events have also decided to bar fans.

But there are a few exceptions — including in northern Japan’s Miyagi region, where Abe will watch Brazil’s women footballers take on the Netherlands.

“It will be my first time watching a football game. I’m looking forward to it,” the 70-year-old told AFP as he waited for a bus to the Miyagi Stadium.

“It’s true that I’m a bit worried about infections rising, but still, I decided to come with a friend and enjoy this.”

He was one of thousands waiting for special transport ferrying fans to the stadium.

To use the buses, spectators had to reserve in advance and have their temperature checked.

Japan has seen a smaller coronavirus outbreak than many places, with around 15,000 deaths despite avoiding tough lockdowns.

But its vaccination programme has moved slowly, and less than a quarter of the population is fully inoculated as infections surge in the capital and elsewhere.

Abe admitted some ambivalence about the Games going ahead. “It would have been better to push it back a little bit, six months or so,” he said.

Bank clerk Kento Yashita, out for the match with his girlfriend, was feeling a bit more confident and pointed out that rules still limit the crowd to 10,000 people.

“And if we take appropriate measures ourselves, we should be able to watch this game safely, I think.”

“We didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” the 28-year-old added.

“We are not exactly the most knowledgeable lot when it comes to women’s football,” he admitted.

“But we are going to cheer, and we are mostly here for the atmosphere.”

Masa and Hiro Numakura travelled up from Tokyo for the match, glad for the chance to catch a bit of an Olympics being held mostly behind closed doors.

In Tokyo “there aren’t any spectators anywhere”, said Hiro, 56, who works in IT.

“But here people from the city went through great trouble for us to be able to come. So we thought we should attend, to support the athletes,” he added.

Inside the stadium, the lucky few fans will still be subject to tough rules.

“We are not allowed to shout, so we will just clap,” said Hiro.

“We’ll make sure our positive thoughts and the voice of our hearts reach the athletes,” added Masa, a 59-year-old bank employee.

“We will cheer with our hearts.”

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