The night before, Junpei Saito hadn’t slept. Neither had Yuuta Kohashi. Rentaro Suzuki could hardly stand still. All three were part of the 1,000-strong army of fans who had started gathering at Hirata Gakuen Kobe Air Center before eight in the morning to greet Vissel Kobe’s new superstar striker Lukas Podolski.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. Podolski stepped out of a chartered plane to chants of “Lu-kas Po-dol-ski.” For the next forty-five minutes he made his way through the ocean of greeters, all eager to get his attention for autographs and, in many cases, a selfie with the German World Cup winner.
University student Yuuta has been a Kobe Vissel fan since childhood, and along with his best friend, Rentaro, he goes to every one of the team’s home games. Today the pair even put university on hold for the morning to come and welcome Poldi, as he’s known to many of his fans.
After getting both a selfie and a coveted autograph, Yuuta exclaimed it was “the best moment of my life.”
“I couldn’t believe the news that Podolski was coming to Vissel,” said Vissel Kobe fan Suzumi Morita.
Minori Hayashi made the 550 kilometer trip from Saitama, near Tokyo, to join her friends Shinpei Yamara and Suzumi Morita on the tarmac to greet their hero. The trio are devout “Gunners,” as fans of British football club Arsenal call themselves. All three have been following Podolski’s career since the days he played for the London-based club.
“I couldn’t believe the news that Podolski was coming to Vissel when I first heard back in February,” said Suzumi, who had come from nearby Awaji Island. “I thought it had to be a lie. I still can’t believe he’s coming.”
Suzumi’s friend Hayashi was one of the first fans to meet Podolski. After getting an autograph from Vissel Kobe’s new number 10 she danced with joy.
“I am sure that with with his explosive left foot he will help us win the title,” said Sakiko Fukuda.
Husband and wife Kazunori and Sakiko Fukuda from Kobe have been following Vissel for five years and were one of the first to arrive at the meet and greet. “I am sure that with with his explosive left foot he will help us win the title,” said Sakiko.
She was hoping also that Podolski could help the team exact revenge on neighboring Cerezo and Gamba, two Osaka-based teams, which are currently ahead of Vissel in the J1 league standings.
For the Shibata family, all Vissel season ticket-ticket holders, signing Podolski represents a great opportunity for the club. But Mr. Shibata tempered his expectations. “Realistically it’s going to be difficult for us this season even with Podolski.”
One of the last fans to greet Poldi was also the youngest – eight-month-old Kako Umezawa, who was there with her mother Mariko, a Vissel fan for more than 10 years. “It’s been harder to get to the games since Kako was born,” her mother admitted.
Nevertheless, Poldi certainly appreciated her coming to greet him with her daughter. Seeing the Vissel uniform-wearing Kako, he came over to give her a hug in front of the assembled photographers.
“I started supporting Vissel as a child,” said Mariko. “I watched families with their children at the stadium, and those children grow up and bring their own children to matches. And now, I am happy I can do the same with Kako.”