Japanese football fans have expressed their disappointment at missing out on Japan's progress in the Tokyo Olympic tournament because all of their matches have been played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But they are looking at ways to show their support for the Japanese men's team, which has reached the semifinals for the first time since the 2012 London Olympics, even without setting foot inside a stadium.
During the men's football quarterfinal match on Saturday evening, Japan defeated New Zealand in a penalty shootout at an empty Kashima Stadium, about 100 kilometers from Tokyo, in a match only attended by games-related personnel, including journalists and photographers.
While the stands were empty and quiet, the speakers at the 40,000-capacity venue broadcast the sounds of fans clapping and cheering to provide something like an authentic atmosphere.
The team, led by coach Hajime Moriyasu, were playing their fourth match without spectators. They will face Spain on Tuesday at Saitama Stadium, a huge arena that can hold up to 64,000 people but which will also be empty.
The Japanese government and other organizing bodies of the Olympics made the unprecedented decision in early July to bar spectators at most of the 42 venues because of surging COVID-19 cases in Tokyo and some other parts of the country.
But dozens of fans showed up in front of the stadium for the match between Japan and New Zealand to hold banners with messages of encouragement to the Japanese team as a bus carrying the players drove into the stadium. More supporters, wearing football jerseys, took photos in front of the venue before kickoff.
Masahiko Yamamori, a local football fan, said he could not stand not coming to the stadium with his two daughters, Misato and Honami. He said he had tickets for all Olympic football matches to be played at Kashima and had been looking forward to them for a long time.
"I wanted to show my support for the team and push them forward. I really wanted to see them play because they have come this far," he said. "It's disappointing that the match will be played behind closed doors, but all I can do is cheer while watching TV."
Ibaraki Prefecture, where Kashima Stadium is located, had banned general spectators from attending the 11 football matches in person, but students from local elementary, junior high and high schools were allowed to enter some of the group stage games as part of a school engagement program.
Misato, 13, and Honami, 9, were among the lucky ones. Misato, who watched the women's match between the United States and Australia on Tuesday, said students were not allowed to cheer loudly so as to prevent the spread of the virus and instead clapped and waved hand-made flags.
"We could hear athletes speaking on the pitch, and hear their sighs when they missed a big chance. It was obviously different from the cheering that I'm used to but it was a great opportunity," said Misato, a junior high school student. "But I wanted to watch this game too because Japan were playing."
Japanese players have also expressed disappointment over the no-spectator policy.
Before the tournament kicked off, captain Maya Yoshida said he wanted the organizers to "reconsider" their spectator policy to play in front of fans. Midfielder Ritsu Doan also highlighted the remarks by the 32-year-old in a Twitter post, saying that "It is the opinion of the players."
Yuta Nakayama, one of the four players who scored for Japan in the shootout on Saturday, said the best part about playing football is having supporters cheer for them throughout the match. But he said he has come to terms with the format of the Olympics
"When you think about having spectators or no spectators, of course supporters have a huge power," said the 24-year-old Nakayama, who plays for PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands.
"For me, I was so happy that the Olympics were held, no matter what the conditions were," he said. "I can feel the support of the fans even without them being present. As an athlete, I am very blessed to be able to compete at the Olympics in this environment."
Kashima Stadium, built in 1993 and home to the Kashima Antlers in the Japan's professional football league, was used during the 2002 FIFA World Cup that was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. Locals have compared the lack of the festive mood during the Olympics with football's showcase event, which was the first edition held in Asia.
"I remember the World Cup really clearly. There were so many people. I had never seen so many people from overseas and it was like a huge festival," said Mitsue Kanno, 68, who owns a cafe in front of JR Kashimajingu Station, located near the stadium.
"I thought it would be like that during the Olympics," she said. "But it is something we must cope with because of the coronavirus. The pandemic changed our lives in so many ways."
"I know health is the top priority, but athletes have also put everything on the line."