Monday, 22 June 2015

Ground 267: NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium, Yokohama FC

The full account of how I ended up adopting Omiya Ardija as my Japanese team is a long and complicated story involving a serious miscalculation of Greater Tokyo's demographics, David Mitchell's number9dream and an Arsenal-supporting English teacher from Limerick. Essentially, it all boils down to this: as a Newcastle United fan for as long as I can remember – thanks a bunch, Dad – I'm duty-bound to root for underachieving, wildly unsuccessful sides whenever I come across them.  In other words, I really didn't have a choice.

When I first came to Japan in September 2004, the closest alternatives to Ardija were the country's most successful and best supported club sides; my arrival, miraculously, coincided with tiny Omiya winning each of their last eleven league games.  On the final afternoon of the season,  the club's star Brazilian striker danced a samba with a corner flag while a raucous, orange-clad crowd acclaimed their team's first ever promotion to J1. Later that night, I drunkenly shimmied up a lamppost opposite Omiya Station and liberated a flag, a cluster of fans and a shopkeeper cheering me on from the pavement below.  It's the closest I'm ever likely to come to feeling like a gloryhunter.

It didn't last, of course. The Brazilian departed for Kofu, Gamba Osaka and Dubai, while the Squirrels morphed into a kind of Japanese Sunderland: hopelessly inept for nine-tenths of the season before somehow acquiring just enough points to do the same again next year.  When they did briefly threaten the top of the table in 2013, the club responded by dispensing with their Slovenian trainer, losing 17 times in 22 matches and getting relegated the following year.

"Before the season started I thought we'd go straight back up as champions, but after the first few weeks it was beginning to look like a disaster," Omiya season ticket holder Steve Barme says.   Beaten away at Cerezo Osaka and JEF United before the new campaign was a month old, the Squirrels haven't lost in eleven games since, are four points ahead of Jay Bothroyd's Jubilo Iwata at the top of J2 and are up against a midtable outfit who've given seven games to a forward born the year after England won the World Cup.  "1-0 Ardija," Steve thinks, "but ask me again right before the end."

With the ground completely uncovered,  I'm relieved when the rain stops just as I arrive.  Unfortunately, ticket sales for away fans come to a halt at exactly the same time.  "Sold out," the woman in the ticket hut apologises in halting English.  Instead, I get a seat at the opposite side of the ground, a paper fan, two flyers, a leaflet for a performance idol contest and four glossy pages of adverts with matchday programme printed on the front.  Across the pitch, the 2,000 or so Omiya fans twirl towel scarves and rattle off the refrain to Boney M's Rasputin and "We Are Orange! We Are Ardija!"  After five minutes of muttering and an unsuccessful attempt to dodge through a rope barrier, I finally realise that there's nothing to stop me walking around the outside of the stand and straight into the away end, where Steve's reserved two seats with the aid of a backpack and umbrella.

Events are more straightforward on the other side of the hoardings, Ardija taking the lead midway through the half when Shigeru Yokotani strolls forward and plants a rising, right-footed shot into the uppermost corner of Yuta Minami's net.  Ten minutes into the second period, Dragan Mrda, capped 14 times by Serbia and formerly of Red Star Belgrade, Sion and Lierse, passes a second past Minami's dive, and three minutes after that Akihiro Ienaga takes one touch to move the ball onto his left foot and another to piledriver it into the net.  The away end bounces in perfect synchronisation, the singing led by a fan in matching orange flip flops and yoga pants; blue and white flags wave limply behind the opposing goal.

Omiya coast through the remainder of the game against tiring and disheartened opponents, Ienaga - talented enough to play 25 times for Mallorca yet lacking the mobility to make it at Plymouth Argyle - flicking and spraying the ball about with the languid air and thinly-disguised disdain of a movie mogul casting a roomful of blondes. "Like a cup tie," thinks Jon Steele afterwards. "Yokohama looked good until the second goal but after that they had nothing left to give." We leave the ground to news that Jubilo - two up in the first half - have gone down by a single goal at home to Gifu.  With almost half the season gone, Ardija are now seven points clear at the top.

Admission:  2,600 yen (around £14)
Date:  Sunday 21st June 2015

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Ground 266: Seagull Park, Kanagawa Prefectural Football Park

I'd woken up late and groggy, with the temperature already in the high-20s and a head that felt like Jon Snow's stomach after the closing scenes of Game of Thrones.  The online news was all about Barcelona, who'd eased to another Champions League while I was otherwise engaged sleeping off my Saturday night.  "Exhilarating" the Guardian's man in Berlin gushed.  "This is the team that takes football to its highest levels."

As a long-time connoisseur of mediocrity in the world's favourite game, my choice of Sunday afternoon entertainment was always likely to be several notches lower on the quality scale.  Still, it's not everyday you get the chance to see the second round of games in the prefectural qualifying tournament for the 22nd All-Japan Club Football Championships, which is a bit like the FA Vase could be if it was crammed into eight weekends, enjoyed virtually zero coverage and had its semi final played in front of a handful of people on an Olympic hockey field.

The Kanagawa competition gathers together heavyweights like Enoshima Flipper, FC Socios and ninth-tier Azul Yuri, a team with no online presence besides the listings of their fixtures of the site of the Kanagawa Prefectural League.  Their opponents were FC Atsugi, one division higher and hailing from a town whose decidedly minor claim to fame is as the birthplace of Teruyuki Moniwa, a second-half substitute in a 2006 World Cup game when the first choice defender got cramp in both thighs.  The two sides met on a pitch that had been funded as a legacy project of the 2002 tournament and is now between a petrol station and an overhead railway line, limbering up to sweeping views of electricity pylons and the ripe smell of manure from a vegetable plot that backed on to a graveyard.

There were already a few dozen spectators perched uncomfortably on concrete blocks, facing a line of diggers and a convenience store stripped of almost all its edible goods.  A couple pushed a dog around the perimeter in a custom-built pram and three women sheltered under parasols despite the absence of either direct sunlight or rain.  Some felled tree trunks and the clubhouse fire escape completed the seating, making the end effect something like Thornaby without the charm or rustic appeal.  Azul's coach was dressed for success in a salaryman's suit, his tactics scrawled on a notebook and a dozen Pocari Sweat bottles dotted around his feet.  His opposite number prowled the touchline in a tank top, growling instructions at his team.  Shortly after kick-off half the crowd departed with transparent bags and surgical masks to clear away leaves behind the goal, where the next two teams to use the pitch were attempting their passing drills beside a cabbage patch and an extra set of posts.  It took another ten minutes before Azul were able to field an entire team of their own, their eleventh man bowing apologetically while hurriedly swapping a pair of white Crocs for bright yellow boots.

Even without their tardy midfielder, Azul had started the better of the two teams.  Then, under less pressure than a FIFA Exco member in the mid-1990s, their goalkeeper flung the ball ten metres wide of its intended recipient and straight at the feet of a lurking Atsugi forward.  The striker dallied, but was then helpfully tripped while attempting to go sideways across goal.  Less than a minute after the penalty was lashed past him, the keeper unwisely attempted to make amends by hurtling off his line, watching as the ball was lobbed over his head and straight down the middle of the unguarded net. The remainder of the half was played out in an atmosphere of polite embarrassment, the Azul manager crossing out several lines of his notebook before dropping it on the floor. 

Azul surprised even themselves when they scored early in the second half,  then staggeringly levelled with a minute left to play and Atsugi lingering on the ball perilously close to their own goal.  There was no messing about with extra time while the next teams waited and it cost £2 an hour to park your car, so it was straight into a penalty shoot-out at the vending machine end.  The first four were placed into corners, the fifth and sixth straight into the goalkeepers' hands.  Atsugi scored their next two, Azul could only clank the post.  When the winning penalty hit the net, there were a few seconds of awkward silence before everyone lined up, bowed towards the clubhouse and then walked off the pitch. 

Admission:  Free
Date:   Sunday June 7th

Friday, 5 June 2015

Ground 264 & 265: Higashi-Totsuka Football Park and Marinos Town

There are a lot of things I like about non-league football in Japan: it's almost always free to watch, the universally relaxed approach to alcohol means you can turn up with your own bag of booze, kick-off times are staggered from Saturday morning to Sunday night, the season continues all the way through the summer, and the venues themselves, while rarely little more than artificial pitches with permanent seating for a few dozen people, are often on the doorsteps of much more interesting places. If monorails built for World Expos don't do it for you, there are  bayside parks and former J.League grounds1964 Olympic hockey fields or a stadium complex built to host the final of the 2002 World Cup. 

Onze's teamtalk
Today's double header promises to be equally memorable, beginning on the fringes of the grandiloquently titled Yokohama Country Club, a 20-minute walk from the nearest railway station via the side of a toll road, a concrete underpass and a long row of Sunday golfers driving balls against a 50-metre-high net. The Higashi-Totsuka pitches were used by J1's Yokohama F. Marinos until the mid-2000s when they relocated to purpose-built facilities in the city centre and left their old training ground to Yokohama FC.  Still operated by the city's second-tier team,  the football park is nowadays used by junior players, women's sides and the local Prefectural Leagues, with back-to-back games in the third-flight of the Tokyo Soccer League - six divisions below the professionals but clearly just about high enough for players to feel unembarrassed about turning out in pink, turquoise and day-glo orange boots - scheduled for the hottest part of the day.  I catch the last 20 minutes and no fewer than four of Hachioji's eight goals against the toiling mobile phone workers from au.EAST.  The next two teams, Griffin Tokyo and Onze FC, are sensibly limbering up behind the net that doesn't have the ball smacked repeatedly into the back of it, and the only other spectators are au's defence.  Hachioji's grateful substitutes loll about in the heat on folding benches, which appear to be the only facilities besides three vending machines, a dozen extra goalposts and an abandoned terrace with grass steps, half its roof left and a bicycle lock on the gate.

 Griffin attack

Eight-goal tonkings are nothing out of the ordinary among the 72 teams that make up Tokyo's third flight.  In another of the division's six groups, Tokyo23 were running 14 past Corazon Matador (Ole!) while Griffin - "Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships" their website promises - had smashed the soporific Panda FC 9-0 just a fortnight previously.  Today is a much cagier affair, with the temperature nudging 31 degrees and the pace unsurprisingly lagging somewhere between languid and Moussa Sissoko once the transfer window closes.  The best chance of the first half drops at the feet of Onze's number 10, who misses a one-on-one, the frame of the goal and the practice wall behind it, slicing instead straight into a clump of trees.  Misfires aside, the whole thing is a fairly surreal experience for someone more accustomed to amateur football in the north-east of England: burly defenders say "Please excuse me" after committing minor fouls, the linesmen spend the break pretending their flags are baseball bats, and a player subbed at half-time strolls back to the touchline twenty minutes later with a plastic straw and a latte in a can.  Nothing much happens until the final minute, when Griffin find their range with two goals in two attacks.  When it's all over the teams walk to the opposing benches, form a line and respectfully dip their heads.

Marinos Town

The first game done, I leave the tinny thwack of golf balls behind and hurriely retrace my steps to central Yokohama, where FC Ashai and Minato Mirai are contesting a Kanagawa Prefectural League Division Two game at Marinos Town, an expensively-assembled five-pitch facility complete with 2,000-seater stand, Italian restaurant, club shop and 24-hour convenience store.  The Marinos announced their departure from Higashi-Totsuka in the year they completed their second successive J.League title and third championship win in just nine years. One decade and a single runners-up place later, the club - now 20% owned by the Manchester City Group, who promise "a collaborative and integrated approach to the football, marketing, media and commercial development of all the clubs in the City family" - are upping sticks again, this time to a cheaper training ground next to the Nissan International Stadium.  The sky-high lease got the underperforming Marinos one of the world's most visually impressive training facilities, overlooked by the 60 billion yen Fuji Xerox building and the futuristic high-rises of Minato Mirai.  A skywalk whisks me out of an underground shopping centre, across upscale department stores and through the display of 'Zero Emission Autonomous Vehicles' at Nissan's global headquarters, before I'm deposited in a car park where the adult players are milling around with canned coffee, Milky Ways and the closing minutes of a Marinos youth game.

 The Fuji Xerox Building

The sky's turning pink by the time the evening fixture begins, the crowd - or, more accurately, me, the substitutes and  a teenage couple who have turned up because they know one of the Asahi players - gathered on a twin-tiered metal bench along the convenience store touchline.  Both teams clank the crossbar, but there's more industry than guile and little to threaten either goal.  Instead, the biggest source of entertainment is a winger with the workrate and volubility of a young Craig Bellamy, whose high-pitched shrieks of frustration peak just seconds before Minato Mirai fluke the first of a what turns into a highly improbable three goals in the final 10 minutes.  The teenagers take off shortly after the second, leaving just me and a man returning from a supermarket who's found a vantage point by the fence. Another hugely entertaining Sunday evening; Greater Tokyo's other 35,682,458 inhabitants don't know what they're missing.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday May 31st 2015

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ground 263: Shin Yokohama Park

When Ronaldo scored the goals which won Brazil's fifth World Cup I was seated on a plastic stool in a Seoul restaurant, drinking beer every bit as bad as Oliver Kahn's deadlock-breaking fumble.  "It was my only mistake in seven games," the German keeper bemoaned, " but it was 10 times worse than any mistake I've ever made."  As the final whistle resounded through Yokohama's vast concrete bowl, the luckless Kahn slouched disconsolately against his goalpost, Kaka cavorted in an 'I Belong to Jesus' t-shirt, and Ronaldo, wrote The Guardian, "in tears of joy this time, was chased around the pitch by at least 36,000 photographers". I stayed long enough to see Cafu propel the trophy towards millions of paper cranes,  then swilled back the remainder of my watery lager and headed home, a day of work beckoning and my first World Cup already beginning to fade into memory. 

Two years later I was in the stadium myself, watching Yokohama F.Marinos, on their way to a third and, to date, final J.League championship, defeat JEF United 2-1 in front of an impressively clamorous, multi-coloured and rowdy 20,516 crowd. The home side had two South Koreans in their starting eleven;  JEF's solitary goalscorer was a young Yuki Abe, later of Leicester City and 53 caps for the Japan national team.  I never returned, though on a bitterly cold evening in December 2011 68,000 did turn out to see Xavi, Messia and Fabregas dismantle Neymar's Santos while, just off the shinkansen from Nagoya,  I sat by my cases in an airport hotel room, the TV on in the background for what I expected to be my very last night in Japan.

Never say never: little did I realise that the Marinos would one day be my neighbourhood team, and the Nissan Stadium just a brisk fifteen-minute walk from my flat. Which is how I find myself back there again, watching Esperanza SC take on Sagami Osawa on an auxiliary pitch in the seventh-tier Kanagawa Prefectural League Division One. There's no Messi, Cafu or Ronaldo on show, but Esperanza have other links to South America: Jorge Ortega, the club's founder and head coach, played for Banfield, Quilmes and Deportivo Espanyol, won a single cap with Carlos Bilardo's Argentina, and worked as academy director at Boca Juniors before relocating permanently to Japan.  In 2011, Ortega added a senior men's team to his Esperanza youth programme; last year they won 23 times, lost just once and sent two players up to J3 sides, Agustin Ortega signing for Blaublitz Akita and Nobuhisa Furukawa, moulded by five years of Esperanza coaching and time spent with Brescia and Uruguay's Club Atletico Atenas, moving to Kataller Toyama. 

The game begins with the sun dipping behind the expanse of the stadium and a constant stream of joggers doing slow laps of the park.  There are a couple of dozen spectators looking down from a footbridge, two men wading unhappily through waist-high grass as they search for stray balls, ten on the bank above with camping seats for chairs, and fifty or sixty more either warming up by the sidelines or watching from the netting that encircles the pitch.  Osawa have played three, lost three and conceded twelve; Esperanza, in Boca colours, with yellow trim and crosses on their chest, flick on exhibition setting,  scoring twice before we've played 20 minutes.  Osawa are neat, tidy and as toothless as centenarians, the closest they come to converting an attack a shot that's still rising as it smacks the netting two metres above goal, their coach forlornly imploring the shooter to "Finish, finish."  They do better at hitting ankles, a series of trips drawing elongated howls from the home bench and a yellow card for an Osawa midfielder, who approaches the referee and bows contritely in response. 

Esperanza cruise through the second period, effortlessly swatting away the occasional danger right up until the moment they let a cross go unchallenged all the way across the area, off an Osawa foot and into the corner of their goal with 70 minutes gone.  The flow changes utterly, the away side clanking the crossbar before flicking home to level the score.  Instructions come more frequently, barked across the pitch in Spanish and Japanese.  Esperanza push with increasing desperation, Osawa, just as furiously, block, hack and scramble away.  With a minute left, a free kick's blocked by a leaping head, but before the defence can react the ball's booted joyfully into the net, the blue and yellows racing for the corner flag as the white shirts hang their heads.  As Oliver Kahn could have told them, football is the cruellest of games. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday May 24th 2015

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Ground 262: Mitsubishi Yowakai Sugamo Ground, Tokyo

A week after my day out with the bear-headed, megaphone-wielding wildlings at Tochigi Uva FC I'm back in the more familiar environs of the Japanese capital city, strolling about a shaded, 18th century pleasure garden named after the six classifications of ancient Waka poetry.  By sheer coincidence, there's a discount booze shop on the corner by the entrance and a free of charge Tokyo Soccer League Division One game taking place one stop away on the train.  What were the chances, eh?

Armed with a bottle of Spitfire and two cans of Okinawa's finest brew, I get to the ground as a game is finishing up, a forward in an England 2002 World Cup top shanking horribly wide of the goal.  Watching from behind a wire fence are the starting eleven for Criacao, a team formed by workers at the Shinjuku Sports Promotion Council whose lofty ambitions culminate in J1 membership by 2020 and winning the Club World Cup in 2025.  For the moment, however, they're stuck in the seventh-tier and play home games wherever they can find a pitch.  "I spent all my time on Google Maps trying to find a ground in Tokyo we could use permanently," club official Kazuhiro Maruyama told Tokyo Issue last year, "but right now we have to train in Saitama Prefecture and play at different grounds most weeks."  Today they've borrowed an artificial pitch from Mitsubishi Yowa, a company-funded club nationally famous for producing players such as ex-Yokohama Marinos and Laos manager Kokichi Kimura and Junya Tanaka, latterly of Kashiwa Reysol, Sporting Lisbon and the Japan national team.  After narrowly missing promotion to the second division of the regional Kanto League - finishing first in the championship but third in the post-season knock-out tournament in which only the two finalists go up - Criacao have added two former J.League players of their own, including Tatsuya Okamoto, who scored five times for J3's Gainare Tottori in 2014. "We were too rigid tactically last year," explained footballing director Kenta Kato. "We need to press harder, get the ball back faster and then go straight for the goal."

As Kato barks out last-minute instructions, I find a seat on a metal bench alongside two women in straw hats, a bored-looking toddler and a couple munching their way through a whole carrier bag's worth of sandwiches.  Criacao take to the field in Fiorentina colours, their opponents, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, in all-white.   The police are on the back foot almost from the off, hacking one shot clear before sweeping another off the line, but 40 minutes and two drink breaks in their number 5 arrives unannounced in the Criacao penalty area and nods over the stunned goalkeeper for the game's opening goal. A minute later, the visitors catch the Criacao defence flat-footed again, a forward pass finding number 7 in enough space to gather, look up and slot in at the opposite post.  "Wow!" says sandwich man, spluttering crumbs. "Amazing!"  Stung, Criacao drill the ball back upfield, scoring once and twice almost levelling the scores. By now, even the toddler is engrossed in what's going on.

The break, inevitably, comes at the very worst time, Criacao's momentum so badly disrupted I begin to suspect their half-time instructions were issued by a combination of John Carver and Stuart Pearce.  They eventually forge a pair of half-chances, missing the target with both, before pulling level with a shot that clanks in off the post. The straw hats scream, two kids in matching Messi tops race along the touchline, and a Yokohama Marinos youth team momentarily break off from their warm-up to see what the fuss is about.  But the thin white line holds, the Met almost taking the points with a shot that clips the top of the crossbar as time ticks away and the fourth-placed title favourites can only draw for the second weekend in a row.  "Beyond Tokyo.  Winning or nothing" reads a banner tied to the fence.  The world's elite club sides can rest easy for a while to come yet.

Admission: Free
Date: Sunday May 17th

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ground 261: Tochigi City Sports Park Stadium

I arrived in Tochigi in the autumn of 2004, swapping a university city an hour away from Prague for a railway halt on the very northernmost edge of the Greater Tokyo Area.  I lived in a shoebox-sized flat with no internet connection, a phone restricted to incoming calls only, and a single window with a view of two rice paddies, a convenience store and the road out of town.  It was a ninety-minute train ride to anything that didn't resemble a Wednesday night out in Sunderland; the surrounding prefecture couldn't even muster as much as a  J.League team to support.  The closest options, I very quickly discovered, were Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds - respectively the country's most successful and biggest teams - and Omiya Ardija,  an insignificant second division outfit which had never before played in the Japanese top-flight.  For a Newcastle United supporter, there was only one choice. My contract done, I beat a fast retreat to the brighter lights of Northern Bohemia; the next time I saw Ardija play, they were losing in J1 and I was living twenty minutes west of Shinjuku, the busiest railway station in the world.

Eleven years on, I'm back in provincial Japan to see the prefecture's second team, Tochigi Uva FC.  Founded soon after WWII by workers at a local Hitachi plant, the club altered its name in 2002, was promoted to the country's highest amateur division eight years later, and is now next to last in the JFL table with a single win and nine defeats, including a 4-0 spanking its last time out.  The only side keeping Uva off the bottom is, unpromisingly enough, today's opponents, Fagiano Okayama Reserves, who have acquired just one point and a measly four goals from their opening ten matches."The quality might not be up to much," says Mike Innes, Ardija fan and long-time watcher of Japan's lower leagues, when we meet on the platform at Shin-Tochigi.  Along with Steve Barme, fellow expat Omiya supporter and our designated interpreter for the day, we navigate from station to stadium by iPad screenshot, passing a swimming pool, a petting zoo which has a pair of goats on a blue tarpaulin and a ferret in a pink cage, and a man who says "No money" as he presses three tickets into our hands.

The free entry is part of Uva's off-the-field push for the J.League, resulting in a bigger than expected crowd of almost 1,300.  The ground comes in standard single-stand-with-mini-roof-and-grass-banking design, with a fountain on one side and forested hills on the other.  The seats are three-quarters full, the grass is more sparsely populated.  The Uva ultras are behind one goal, waving flags and setting up drums which they bang on incessantly.   The Fagiano four stand by a corner flag, partially hidden by a set of stairs.  "God almighty!" Mike exclaims when the first chants of "Fagiano!" blow faintly across the running track. "I thought that was an echo." "The standard's pretty terrible," says Steve - who clearly hasn't yet experienced the lower reaches of the Tokyo Soccer League -  as the ball arcs lazily overhead and the referee's whistle blows for yet another offside.  The closest we get to goalmouth action is a corner which is blown by the wind first towards and then about ten metres past the far post, missing every single player on the way.  We're busy speculating on the likelihood of a miskicked set-piece eventually breaking the deadlock when a Fagiano backpass is poked against a post and bounces tamely into the net.  "One of the shittest goals you'll ever see," says Mike, whose years of supporting Altrincham and Ardija make him something of an expert in the field.

Half-time brings a queue at a vending machine, where I'm joined by an Uva fan with a megaphone, flag and Polar bear's head.  Intrigued, we follow him into back to the rest of the ultras, who break off from a group huddle to say "Hi", "Konnichi-wa" and "Welcome to Tochigi."  "The only thing that could improve this welcome," thinks Mike, "is if they give us free beer."  Instead, we make do with a rip-roaring start to the second half, the home side having a goalbound effort headed off the line before Toshihiko Uchiyama smashes in a second after his first attempt bounces back from a teammate's chest.  The Uva support keeps up a clamour of drumming, which crescendoes with the polar bear spreadeagled on the grass while screaming incoherently through his megaphone.  Another fan waves a towel scarf.  A third, in blue curly wig, shakes everybody by the hand.  "Come again next game," says one of the ultras, while a woman holds aloft a photo of her favourite player and screeches at the pitch.   A strange afternoon, but by far the most fun I've ever had in Tochigi.  "Fancy coming again?" asks Steve as we polish off mini-steaks in a restaurant which mysteriously empties almost as soon as we walk through the door.  It takes me three hours and four trains to get back to Yokohama, sunburnt, tired and ready for more.

Admission:  "No money"
Date:  Sunday May 10th 2015

In case you're wondering, the Uva in Tochigi comes from the Italian word for grapes, though Mike's father-in-law assures him that Tochigi's grapes are actually "shit, too sweet and with no depth of flavour."  The polar bear head, disappointingly, is tied in to a sponsorship deal with an air conditioning company (with thanks on that one to Steve's superior Japanese language skills).  

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ground 260: Komazawa Football Field, Tamagawa

If you've ever wondered what British football terraces were like, try riding a Tokyo train between the hours of 7.30 and 9am.  I start my journey to work on the outskirts of Yokohama, a city of three million people, and end in Shibuya, a station used by roughly the same number of passengers every single weekday.  TV screens loop adverts for Nikon cameras, bank products and non-alcoholic beer.  There's the melodic roar of station announcements ("Mamonaku san-ban-sen ni Shibuya-yuki ga mairimas"), the thrill of finding yourself in an empty inch of space, the black-suited crowd swaying into each other between stops and surging forward the moment the doors ping open.

Jiyugaoka Station is the worst of them all, a place where no-one alights and rank after rank of salarymen push and drag themselves aboard.  Last week I watched with wry amusement a bloke in a Chelsea scarf shove his way through the doors, an office worker simultaneously getting his legs in a tangle and falling to the platform, grimacing silently before stoically hobbling away.  Today it's where I get off, hurrying down a pair of escalators, hurtling across a bridge and bounding through a tunnel in my haste to make a change of trains for the riverside playing fields of Komazawa University, alma mater of several J-League players and the coach of Vietnam's national team.  A week since experiencing the semi-rarefied heights of the Japanese third tier, I'm back among the obscurer corners of the capital city's football scene, taking in the second division of the amateur Tokyo Soccer League, a competition where kick off times range right across the weekend from 9am on Saturday mornings to after dark on Sunday nights, admission charges are unheard of and the handful of spectators are usually relatives, substitutes or people hanging around to use the pitch.

Nominally, the home side are Tokyo Bay FC, celebrating a tenth birthday with 300 players and a renewed focus "on synergy creation", their blue and grey kits carefully chosen to reflect "water, downtown buildings and the transportation network" of a city centre base in Shinagawa.  Their opponents are GIOCO Setagaya,  ambitious suburban cognoscenti who've subtitled their sparse website 'The J-League Team' five promotions too soon.  I arrive just after kick off, having squandered the time saved in the station by getting lost in a newly opened shopping plaza.  "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I politely ask a pair of old ladies, who shake heads and wave hands in vigorous unison before realising I'm still talking in a form of Japanese.  I'm bowed through the gates by a uniformed guard as Setagaya get the game underway; the team staff recline on park benches, the spectators make do with a kerb along the touchline and the rectangle of grass inside a shot put net.

Ten minutes in, the away side literally stroll into a lead when the Tokyo Bay goalkeeper mistimes a rush off his line, a forward passing the ball through his legs before a second taps in to the unguarded net.  "Woooah," the spectators purr appreciatively as the scorer jogs back to halfway.  It's soon apparent that Bay are hopelessly outclassed, their midfielders scurrying about to regain possession before wastefully punting the ball forward like mortar shells into no man's land.  Setagaya help out by playing everything down the left, the home defence clinging to the centre with all the grim desperation of a New Labour MP.  When half-time comes, they retreat exhausted to the shade under a classroom block, the coach's instructions echoing in angry bursts across the pitch.  Setagaya stand by the touchline, their trainer gently remonstrating while spectators stretch, lace up boots or slink off to the adjoining rugby pitch for a kickaround.

The second half is disappointingly flat, Bay making an almighty hash of two free kicks before Setagaya score again from a corner and the crowd start pedalling home.  Pass completion and urgency slump to a level somewhere between an end-of-season England friendly and Newcastle United from late-January to May; GIOCO smash the rusting crossbar, score a third and then stroke the ball around the centre circle while the tiring Bay players toil in the heat of an April afternoon.  Their coach stands up, leaves his tactics board by a corner flag and stares across the river.  "We fought well," the match report concludes, "but hope for better luck next weekend."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday April 26th 2015