Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Sports

International soccer fans converge in Tampa for World Cup tune-ups

"Nippon! Nippon!" the crowd of Japanese national soccer team fans chanted between drum beats Monday night.

They had the rare opportunity to see the Samurai Blue play themselves into World Cup shape in a tune-up match against Costa Rica at Raymond James Stadium.

International friendly matches are scheduled around the world in the run-up to the big tournament in Brazil. Luckily for soccer nuts in the Sunshine State, Florida plays to host six of the 17 games scheduled for U.S. soil, including Japan vs. Zambia on Friday night in Tampa.

Japan's Football Association chose Tampa to host their games to give the players a chance to acclimate to the weather on this side of the globe.

Shuichi Sato, 50, a businessman from Japan, just happened to have business in Tampa this week when he heard about the game.

"It's very exciting," he beamed. "My friends and family are watching it on TV at home."

He marveled at the massiveness of the stadium and struggled to keep his energy up as he waved his country's flag with "Pride of Japan" written in block letters.

The 9 p.m. kickoff put the game squarely in mid-morning for Japanese fans, an eventuality they'll have to condition themselves for as the tournament in Brazil draws near.

More than, 7,100 people attended the match, and more than two-thirds seemed to be waving the Costa Rican flag.

David A. Zeledon, 36, a insurance agent from Tampa, heard about the game months before tickets went on sale and brought his dad, Tampa Parks and Recreation Employee David F. Zeledon, out for the honor of seeing their home country play in their new hometown.

"The atmosphere is really friendly. We were sitting near Japanese fans and cheering together," the younger Zeledon said. "It's like we're all one team."

Seating was general admission, so at the half the Zeledons moved to get a seat near Costa Rica's new goal. They spent all night on signs in Spanish and still had smiles on their faces even after their team fell 3-1.

"We're going to be back for the second game against Zambia," Zeledon said. "International soccer is at a different level. The fan culture is different than (Major League Soccer.) They are still learning now."

Forty Hillsborough Community College students came to the game with the school's intramural soccer club, said Daryn Boehner, 27, the club's president.

"We need more soccer in Tampa," Boehner said. The interest is there. Her intramural soccer club grew from 10 members to 180 in the year since its founding.

"There were more people than I expected here," she said. "Being able to see international level soccer in big venues in Tampa, where the teams represent people's actual countries, is great for soccer here."

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