Glasgow (AFP) – Celtic and Rangers will renew their rivalry on Wednesday in a crucial battle for supremacy in the Scottish Premiership with a new legion of fans set to rise at the crack of dawn to tune in from Japan.
The Hoops have already claimed the first silverware of the Scottish season, lifting the League Cup in December thanks to two goals from Kyogo Furuhashi.
Furuhashi’s 16 goals in 26 games since he joined Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou in swapping the J-League for Scotland has made the Japanese international an instant hero and tempted Celtic to dip into the Far East market again.
New Year celebrations for fans in Glasgow started early when the club announced the signings of Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Daizen Maeda on December 31.
Hatate and Maeda have already made an impact, scoring in wins against Hearts and Hibernian as Celtic closed to within just two points of Rangers in the title race with three league meetings between the sides still to come this season.
Postecoglou knows the market well after he spent three-and-a-half years in charge of Yokohama Marinos.
“The deals wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Postecoglou being at Celtic,” Japanese football expert Sean Carroll told AFP.
The Australian’s judgement has been backed by a board keen to make the most of bargain prices and the commercial opportunities on offer in Japan.
Even once a compulsory purchase option in Maeda’s loan deal is exercised, all four signings will have cost Celtic less than £10 million ($13.5 million).
“If you’re looking at the fees for Maeda and Hatate, Celtic have committed a robbery of a scale it’s impossible to describe,” said Dan Orlowitz, sports writer for the Japan Times.
“Japanese clubs still take an element of pride in sending their players to Europe,” Carroll explained.
“If J-League clubs held out for equivalent fees to those paid for players already in Europe, clubs wouldn’t shop in this part of the world as, rightly or wrongly, they are seen as still not being at the requisite level for European football.”
– Culture clash –
Celtic have enjoyed the benefit of a Japanese superstar on and off the field before.
Shunsuke Nakamura won three league titles in four years at Celtic Park between 2005 and 2009 and famously scored the winning goal with a stunning free-kick to beat Manchester United in the Champions League.
Celtic’s current quartet of Japanese imports do not yet have the same star attraction in their homeland as Nakamura did, but their presence is being noticed.
The Celtic FC Japan Twitter account that was only launched in July already has more followers than Paris Saint-Germain’s Japanese language account.
“Celtic has a huge opportunity now,” said Cesare Polenghi, whose digital media company Ganassa runs the club’s Japanese accounts. “I’m quite sure if there was no Covid that they would be coming to Japan in the summer.”
The limited international exposure of Scottish football means Celtic are a long way off attracting sponsors of the size of Rakuten and Yokohama Tyres, whose names have been blazed across the front of Barcelona and Chelsea’s shirts in recent seasons.
But having four players for Japanese fans to follow offers a better chance of commercial returns.
“We’re confident because of the quality of the players and the intelligence of the manager,” said Polenghi.
However, the culture clash between what appeals to fans following in English and Japanese could be evident this week for one of football’s fiercest derbies.
“In Japan, the people really don’t like much bashing the other teams,” said Polenghi. “The idea is you still have to respect your opponent.”
Mutual respect is rarely high on the agenda of an Old Firm clash.
Rangers revelled in ending Celtic’s quest for a record 10th consecutive league title last season.
Now Postecoglou’s men have the chance to lay down a marker by moving top for the first time since August.
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