Amid all the glory, accolades, and sizeable financial benefits that were showered upon the victorious members of Manchester United after their success in Moscow last month, it was almost entirely ignored – at least, throughout Europe – that one of the privileges bestowed on the victors of the UEFA Champions League is the right to represent the continent in FIFA’s Club World Cup in Japan at the end of the year. Perhaps justifiably, in this era of untold millions and the pressure to keep the squad ‘fresh’, the Champions League is seen as the pinnacle of achievement for a team in Europe, and a December trip to Yokohama as an unwanted burden ahead of a busy festive season for Premier League clubs. In other continents, however, the Toyota Cup is approached with a much greater degree of anticipation, and for myself, could provide both a rare opportunity to see my heroes in action and a dilemma that I had never before considered a possibility.
From my earliest memories of Whiteside and Robson, my passion for Manchester United has been a central part of my life, but I knew that I would be forced to become a little detached from my team when I moved to Japan three years ago. Nowadays, it is more about sacrificing Saturday nights out whenever United are the early game, or sleep in the case of midweek matches that kick off at 3.45am my time, and I have now not sat in the Stretford End since we beat Lyon in the Champions League group stage back in 2004/05.
Since coming to Japan, though, I have been able to beat off the homesickness to a large extent through a somewhat different footballing experience. Time spent here as a student introduced me to the J-League, to Gamba Osaka, and to their hardcore group of supporters; and I now have a stadium only half an hour away, a season ticket costing less than a hundred pounds, and a great bunch of lads to watch the game with. As well as knowing that I will always be surrounded by friends at any of the home matches, I have also partaken in many a gruelling away trip by road, which tends to involve taking turns at the wheel in nine-hour drives through the night – both there and back. With the other guys on our curva, I have shared tears of both joy and despair in cup finals and final day title deciders, and I like to think that despite being the only foreigner, I am one of the group. However, I am now, for the first time, beginning to have my loyalties challenged.
‘Ben, if Gamba qualify for the Toyota Cup, and end up playing United, which one would you support?’
Until recently, I had thought I was a safe bet to get away with it. The postcodes of my two lovers were surely too distinct for them ever to meet and my bigamy to be exposed. I was desperate for United to win the European Cup and play proper competitive football – whether they like it or not – in Japan, and since this country’s guaranteed right to host the competition expires this year, this would be our last chance for a while. I have not seen Cristiano Ronaldo in the flesh since before he was a World Player of the Year candidate, and I want to regale him with ‘Viva Ronaldo’ and sing the other new songs that just don’t feel the same in front of the telly at a quarter to one in the morning. I have waited a long time to cheer a United goal scored right there on the pitch in front of me again, and this December will finally provide me with the ticket to hopefully do just that. But could I go through with it if dozens of my mates – the ones I stand with every week – are on the receiving end behind the opposite goal?
Of course, United would probably rest some of the big guns in what should be a mere inconvenience ahead of a final against the Copa Libertadores champions. But for Gamba, it would be the biggest game of their history. In the three years since it first carried a ticket to the world stage, the J-League representatives have started focusing more on the Asian Champions League, and the Urawa Reds players rarely hid the fact that the promise of a meeting with AC Milan was a major incentive during their ultimately successful run last year. Gamba had little history to speak of when I first arrived here, and despite a period of relative success since then, it would be little exaggeration to say that a win over the European champions on almost home turf would be the biggest thing that will ever happen to this football club. Gamba are only in their second ever ACL campaign, but with a quarter-final berth secured with a game to spare, and the guarantee that, as hosts, one Japanese club will definitely take part this December, supporters are already allowing themselves to dream.
In purely football terms, the match would be win-win for Gamba. We wouldn’t expect a victory so would enjoy it whatever happens. If I wore black and blue and stuck with the underdogs, I know I could witness the game of the century with the friends who care about the team more than anyone else in the world. If I wore my red shirt at the other end, however, there would likely be no familiar faces, the result would either be nothing to cheer too much about or simply humiliating, while I would be running the risk of alienating a good many people. The match may only be a hypothetical prospect but it is a real one and a fantastic one, and enough to provoke a ferocious battle with my conscience six months and several hurdles in advance.
When it all boils down to it, though, Manchester United are my true first love, and I get the impression that my heart would, on this occasion, prefer a pragmatic 1-0 win for Fergie’s men over the romance of glory for Akira Nishino’s brave team. I’m sorry to let you down, boys, but if you’d still have me I’d definitely be joining you for the after-match party, whatever the outcome.