In the summer of 2019, two of the world’s top soccer squads — FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC — visited Japan to join Vissel Kobe in the inaugural Rakuten Cup, a historic mini-tournament organized by Rakuten. While the matches served mainly as an exhibition for fans, to avid supporters of the three clubs the opportunity to see their favorite teams face-off against each other in Japan was a dream come true. And in a new original documentary by Rakuten titled The Fans, it is from this fans’ perspective that we get to experience the 2019 Rakuten Cup once again. Here’s what to expect from the 5-episode series (warning: spoilers ahead!)
Waiting for the moment
The Fans opens in the arrival lounge of Tokyo’s Haneda airport, amid a sea of FC Barcelona devotees waiting for the players to arrive. Before long, the players emerge from customs to the familiar cheers and enthusiasm that greet the La Liga powerhouse wherever they go.
While most fans are content to simply watch matches on TV, in a pub or from the stands, hardcore fans of the Blaugrana are willing to go the extra mile to show their support. These are the ones who camp out, sometimes days in advance, for the opportunity to meet their heroes, ask for an autograph and maybe even share a selfie. The wait can be agonizing, but the thrill of meeting their heroes in person more than makes up for it.
In The Fans, the camera turns its focus from the pitch to the stands and tells the stories of the individual fans and their passion for global soccer.
Friendship in fandom
The first fan we are introduced to is a die hard Chelsea supporter dubbed “Terry,” no doubt after Chelsea’s legendary former captain, John Terry. He says that becoming a Chelsea FC fan at the age of 14 was life-changing: “I want to change other Chelsea fans’ lives like my life was.” The film shows Terry organizing events focused on building a Chelsea fan community in Japan, where supporters can gather to talk about the team, practice chants and songs, and generally enjoy the company of like-minded, true blue Chelsea FC supporters.
A chance to bond with family
Karen and her 7-year-old son Shun have been eagerly anticipating this moment. Their hearts are as full of gratitude for the opportunity to watch FC Barcelona in-person as their home is of club memorabilia. “My son loves soccer very much so I’m really making this a time to bond with him,” Karen comments. “Barcelona coming here to Japan is a great present for me so I’m really thankful.”
A spiritual perspective
Sports fandom is often referred to as a religion. While that can seem like hyperbole, for Buyanyogtokh, a Mongolian Chelsea supporter, there seems to be a spiritual element to the experience. On game days, Buyanyogtokh lights incense as an offering of safety and the like to the soccer gods. “I burn this incense so that the players of Chelsea and Barcelona finish the match without any injuries, and show the spectators good play in today’s Chelsea vs Barcelona match,” his praying begins, without a hint of where his loyalties lie. But his second offering makes it clear he is rooting for Chelsea blue: “I burn this incense so that coach Lampard leads the team into victory in today’s match.”
Matchday 1: FC Barcelona vs. Chelsea FC
On July 23, Japan was finally treated to the opening match of the 2019 Rakuten Cup, which we previously covered here. The Fans uses the match to reintroduce us to Karen and Shun, Terry and Buyanyogtokh, as they cheer on their respective teams, live from Saitama Stadium on the outskirts of Tokyo. In a particularly amusing moment, just as Terry tells the camera that the match is about to finish 2-0 in Chelsea’s favor, as he predicted, his prophecy is dashed when Barcelona snatch a last-gasp consolation goal. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome, all the featured fans had a special time as Chelsea captured the first leg of the competition.
Sports as a beacon of hope and progress
The film then takes us on the 550km bullet train journey from Saitama to Kobe, the birthplace of Rakuten founder and CEO Mickey Mikitani and home of Vissel Kobe — one of the J.League’s top-tier soccer clubs. Vissel debuted in Kobe in 1995, the same year that the city of Kobe was devastated by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. The disaster was a seminal moment for the city and, for many, Vissel Kobe has become a symbol of Kobe’s hope and resilience.
Before game two, we are separately introduced to Yoshi and Naoki, two Kobe natives who currently live and work in Tokyo. For both men, the chance to watch Vissel Kobe play against FC Barcelona in their hometown provides them with more than enough reason to make the trip home. Beyond the match itself, returning to Kobe is also a chance to reconnect with family and friends.
The men have a shared passion for Vissel Kobe, but it is driven by different emotions. Yoshi is young and full of aspirations for the future. He sees the transitions of stars like Lukas Podolski, David Villa and Andres Iniesta to the J.League and the subsequent opportunity to play against world-class teams as potentially transformational for soccer in Japan: “(The Rakuten) Cup will have a very good influence on Japanese football… and maybe the football level in Japan will improve.”
For Naoki, a middle-aged family man, his love for Vissel comes from an abiding love for his hometown. He commented, “I myself am not a football player, but I love Kobe. That’s why I support Vissel Kobe,” before serenading the viewer, supported by a chorus of Vissel fans, with a love song to Kobe, written to the tune of the Edith Piaf classic, Hymne a L’Amour. It is a touching moment that illustrates the transcendent quality of sport to inspire hope and unite communities.
Matchday 2: FC Barcelona vs. Vissel Kobe
On July 27, the Rakuten Cup final was played out in front of a packed crowd at Vissel Kobe’s home stadium. In a match that witnessed the reunion of Barça legends Iniesta and Villa with their former club, it was the Spanish giants who ultimately triumphed. But for players and fans alike, there were no losers on this day.
The Fans closes by reuniting viewers with many of the supporters introduced throughout the film as they exit the stadium following the match. Ultimately, we learn that supporting a sports team is not just about cheering or buying merchandise. Rather, it is about choosing to make that team a part of your identity and using it to help shape how you interpret and interact with the world. And for the fans we met and the stories they shared, it is clear that fandom has helped them interpret — at least this part of their world — with optimism and joy.