Monday, 26 December 2011

Ground 199: Central Avenue Stadium, Billingham Synthonia

A village on the north bank of the Tees before 1914 Billingham was built on war, water and bombs, its proximity to the river, Durham coalfields and an offshoot of the Stockton and Darlington Railway making it a perfect base for the new Government Nitrogen Factory. The plant’s armaments production led to growth which was explosive in both senses of the word: within two decades there was a town of 19,000 people, a chemical works which employed more than a quarter of the local population, and the world’s only football team to take its name from an agricultural fertiliser.

 Billingham Synthonia began life on a pitch within the grounds of Imperial Chemical Industries. Joining the Northern League at the end of World War II, the club took part in the first floodlit game of football to be played in north-east England – 3,000 fans watching them beat an RAF side by eight goals to four in November 1952 – and briefly had a forward by the name of Brian Howard Clough in their side until he left his job as an ICI office junior to do national service and don the red shirt of Middlesbrough FC.  One of three Northern League grounds within a five-minute drive of the point where the A19 and A1027 overlap, the Central Avenue Stadium’s 2,000-capacity cantilevered stand was the longest anywhere in the country when it opened in September 1958 with a game against FA Amateur Cup holders Bishop Auckland. 

 The few hundred fans, wrapped up in new hats and jackets, take refuge from the buffeting winds under the stand’s metal roof as a blast of U2 accompanies Billingham’s two teams across the cinder running track. “We are the Synners haters,” chorus a group of six Town fans in blue and white, earning wry smiles from those in green. Across the pitch, you can see the slim floodlights of Town’s Bedford Terrace stadium through the bare, wintry branches. The Belsais Lane pitch which Clough turned out on is now an abandoned office block, marked out for demolition a couple of hundred metres from the Central Avenue’s turnstile. 

 It’s a scrappy, impatient first quarter, low on quality until Synthonia’s Matty Crossen turns smartly past a defender on the left touchline and delivers a cross which Danny Earl stops with one foot and stabs past Town keeper James Briggs with the other. “The scorer for Synthonia is Danny Earl,” crackles a voice from the tannoy. Half the stand is still chattering excitedly when Glenn Butterworth tries his luck from midway between the Synthonia goal and halfway line, the ball dipping over the flailing right hand of ex-Town keeper Josh Moody.  “Goal for Billingham Town in the 24th minute,” says the announcer grudgingly, not bothering to supply the goalscorer’s name. With the wind at their backs, the visitors aim high balls over the Synthonia defence for the diminutive Nicky Martin and recent signing Dave Onions to hurtle after. “Look at that, they defend with ten and leave one up top,” a home fan says, the disgust seeping from every syllable. “We don’t do that.”  On the stroke of half time, Earl splits the centre backs with a ball that Crossen thuds against the base of the post. “Just a matter of time,” slurps a home fan through his Bovril. 

Wind assisted in the second half, there’s a sense of inevitability about a second goal for Synthonia. Despite the occasional danger posed by the pace of Onions, gusts of wind more often curl attempted clearances back on Town’s hard pressed defence. When the goal does come, though, it’s an anti-climax - a cross headed down by ex-Town defender Danny Wray and the ball just beating Briggs across the line with seventy minutes played.  Already embroiled in a relegation scrap with Tow Law Town and Jarrow Roofing, the blue half of Billingham  push forward desperately. “Get in to the gits,” someone jokes. “Come on Town,” a woman’s voice urges repeatedly. But with just a minute of the ninety left to play, and the crowd spilling down the stairs to the bar and exit gate, midfielder Jamie Blyth beats Briggs from the edge of the box. 3-1 Synthonia and the smiles are on the faces of the people wearing green and white. 

 Date: December 26th 2011
Admission: £5

Friday, 23 December 2011

Goalhanging For Beginners

"Man is a goal-seeking animal." Aristotle.

I came across Steve McLay's simple but brilliant No Movement For Goalposts at the start of the year. The tumblr site is made up of nothing more than pictures of goalposts around the world, "(the) shapes and settings of childhood football dreams. Each has it's own story, each looks different to the next".  Intrigued, I trawled through my old photos, sending off a batch which included a five-a-side goal buried in a mound of snow by the side of Moldova's national stadium and England, with me between the sticks, conceding to Algeria in an Odessa public park.

And then things came to an end. The site hasn't been updated since June; in its absence, here are a few of my favourite goals from 2011. Cue the Lightning Seeds.

 Palmeral de Elche, Spain. UNESCO World Heritage football pitch. 

Guisborough Town's King George VI Stadium.

New Mills AFC and the edge of the Peak District.

Jarrow Roofing and Penrith players at the Roofers' Boldon CA Sports Ground.

Goalnet in club colours at Gateshead Leam Rangers

Sagawa Shiga and a glimpse of Biwako, Japan's biggest lake.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ground 198: Yamaha Stadium, Jubilo Iwata

Think Jubilo and you think fallen giants. 'Road to Champion 2011' is the homepage banner on the club's official website, but Iwata haven't managed to get anywhere near that since they won both stages of the championship in 2002, finishing a mighty 16 points clear of Yokohama F. Marinos overall. Backed by Yamaha, initially marshalled by World Cup winner Dunga and inspired by the legacy of Hans Ooft, the first foreigner to coach the Japan national team, and the Italian forward Toto Schillachi, who wound down his career with 56 goals in 78 J.League appearances, the Shizuoka side lifted three titles, the League and Emperor's Cups and the Asian Club Championship in the space of seven seasons between 1997 and 2003.

At their peak, Jubilo had a squad packed with Japan international talent: Toshihiro Hattori, Hishori Nanami and Masashi Nakayama represented the Blue Samarai at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Nakayama scoring his country's first ever goal in the finals in a group stage game with Jamaica. Daisuke Oku and Toshiya Fujita won fifty caps between them, Naohiro Takahara scored 26 goals in a single season, played for Boca Juniors and made over 100 appearances in the Bundesliga with Hamburg and Eintracht Franfurt.  His depature in 2002 marked the start of Iwata's decline, with a rapidly ageing squad slipping from runners-up in 2003 to ninth four years later. In 2008 Jubilo reached their nadir, narrowly edging out Vegalta Sendai in the last ever Promotion/Relegation Series thanks to a temporary comeback by Ooft and three goals from the otherwise unheralded Takuya Matsuura. "We'll do much better next season," the Dutchman promised. Masaaki Yanagishita returned for a second spell in a managerial job once briefly held by Luiz Filipe Scolari (the Brazilian replaced Ooft in 1997 but left for Palmeiras after just 11 games), and though his team have made it no higher than eleventh in each of the last two seasons, they scrapped their way to a first trophy in seven years with a 5-3 extra time win over Hiroshima in the 2010 J.League Cup final.  Just as significantly, national team forward Ryoichi Maeda has finally emerged as a worthy successor to Takahara, 37 goals in two seasons earning him a pair of Golden Boot awards and a starting place in the Japan team which won this year's Asian Cup.

I take the train south from Nagoya, passing through the Brazilian belt of Toyohashi and Hamamatsu. When I get off at Iwata, the first thing I see are pale blue Jubilo flags: tied to the front of buses, lining the entrance to the station and propped in front of almost every shop on the half-hour walk to the ground, along with a Jubilo-branded vending machine, Jubilo posters - all, unsurprisingly, bearing a picture of Maeda - and even a Jubilo paving stone pointing the way to the Yamaha Stadium. Built at the end of the 1970s, the Yamaha's one of the more atmospheric grounds in Japan, its compact, running track-free design featuring a double-tiered home end, monolithic floodlights in all four corners and some impressively steep terracing, which I immediately head to the very top of. The travelling Kawasaki Frontale fans have filled one end of the pitch and a corner to the side, keeping themselves entertained with a lengthy display of synchronised bouncing. The home supporters respond by pumping their fists, clapping in time with a drum and twirling Brazilian flags and Jubilo scarves like helicopter rotor blades.

With Maeda missing, young forward  Hidetaka Kanazano - scorer of an impressive 12 goals in his first J.League season - partners the popular Brazilian Gilsinho up front, but it's Kawasaki who draw the first reaction from the crowd for anything happening on the pitch, a ball turned round the two central defenders for striker Yu Kobayashi to chase, only for ex-Portsmouth keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to come storming off his line to clear.  "Allez, allez, allez, Frontale!" trampolines nine tenths of the away end, still bobbing up and down when Gilsinho lashes in to the roof of the net on 16 minutes after keeper Rikihiro Sugiyama fumbles a high cross into a goalmouth crowded with blue shirts. With ex-Nagoya Grampus stalwart Masahiro Koga keeping Kobayashi as quiet as the Emirates Stadium  it's left to Juninho, scorer of more than 200 goals for Frontale since arriving from Brazil eight years ago, to threaten Kawaguchi's goal, hooking a couple of metres wide after a game of up and under on the edge of the Jubilo penalty area. Off-balance, Yusuke Tasaka pushes the away side's only other chance of the half into the top deck of the stand as Jubilo, fleet-footed and tenacious in midfield, attack at will. Three minutes before the break Gilsinho adds a second goal, evading his marker at a corner kick and powering a header past Sugiyama. The Kawasaki fans bop out the rest of the half while Jubilo wave scarves and umbrellas and their team begins to showboat.

Frontale captain Yusuke Igawa replaces the youthful Yuki Saneto at the start of the second half as the away side immediately force Kawaguchi into action. Five minutes in the experienced keeper embarrassingly fluffs an easy catch from a left-wing corner and Juninho - a free agent next month - bundles in his ninth goal of the season. With their next attack full-back Yusuke Tanaka smashes the ball against the base of the post with Kawaguchi flailing and Jubilo, improbably, suddenly clinging on.

It takes the home side time to gather themselves, but when they do Sugiyama has to claw a Kanazono effort one-handed around the post and Daisuke Nasu slams a shot against a Yamaha hoarding to the side of the goal. It's the start of a breatless final third in which play lurches from one side of the pitch to the other like a pissed-up salaryman on a midnight pavement. The season ends with Gilsinho shielding the ball by a corner flag and Kashiwa Reysol clinching their first ever title with a 3-1 win in Urawa, bringing the curtain down on another thoroughly enjoyable year of J.League football.

Roll on next March.

Date: December 3rd 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Ground 197: Home's Stadium, Vissel Kobe

Imagine a scenario that goes something like this: a billionaire retail mogul buys a near-bankrupt football club despite cheerfully admitting to knowing little about the sport. He appoints business contacts with no experience of the game to oversee his investment, overspends on burnt-out superstar forwards, sells stadium naming rights to an online estate agency, completely rebrands the club, changing its kit from black and white stripes to the crimson of his own company, and suffers an embarrassing relegation before a semi-redemptive season in a lower league restores it to the ranks of top-flight also rans. The ghost of Newcastle United past? Not quite. This is Vissel Kobe.

 Hello sailor

'We are Kobe. We walk together forever' reads the sign above the entrance to Home's Stadium, but Vissel (a mishmash of the words 'Victory' and 'Vessel', in linguistically awkward homage to Kobe's seafaring heritage) have spent more time stumbling than strolling - never finishing higher than 10th in J1, and suffering major financial problems after the Daiei supermarket chain had to withdraw its sponsorship in the aftermath of 1995's Great Hanshin earthquake.  But still the big names came (and very often flopped): Michael Laudrup played 24 games between leaving Real Madrid and signing up for Ajax, Turkey's Ilhan Mansiz, Patrick Mboma, South Korean international Kim Nam-il,  former Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday star Emerson Thome, ex-Rayo Vallecano forward Shoji Jo and Masayuki Okano, the man whose goal sent Japan to their first ever World Cup. Nowadays, Mikitani's increasingly parsimonious ownership means the talent is spread much thinner, with the team's star player Yoshito Okubo, an ex-Japan international forward who played a minor part in Wolfsburg's 2009 Bundesliga title success and lasted two seasons in La Liga with Real Mallorca, and one-time assistant coach Mashahiro Wada occupies a managerial position formerly held by Stuart Baxter and ex-Real Madrid boss Benito Floro. After avoiding relegation on the final day of last season, Wada's side are doing markedly better this time out, pushing for their best ever finish in the J.League table.

Vissel Girl and Pirate Cow

Opened in 2001, the ground formerly known as the Kobe Wing Stadium hosted three games in the following year's World Cup including Brazil's 2-0 second round win over Belgium. As I enter I'm handed, in strict order, a matchday programme, a '2011 thanks book', a Football Allstars digital gamecard and a Big Mac discount voucher in a silent operation of military-style efficiency.  I stop to pick up a double Vissel dog from a woman clad in a black shirt and white gloves.  Inside, the two sets of fans are already trading songs. "We'll get up the anchor" and "My sweet Kobe home" read banners in the home end. Jublio reply more succinctly with "We Believe".  The teams are announced, giant flags are raised and lowered, and a cow in a pirate's hat rushes around the pitch waving a Kit Kat banner back and forth over its head.

The away end

Prompted by the former Santos and Vasco da Gama player Rodrigo Souto in midfield Iwata enjoy marginally the better of the early possession. Kobe are more aggressive, and when their bustling Brazilian forward Popo crosses at pace his compatriot Botti beats Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to the ball only to see his header strike the net stanchion. In the 18th minute the home side take the lead, Kunie Kitamoto striding upfield and sliding a pass which leaves Takayuki Yoshida one on one with Kawaguchi.  Kitamoto continues his run, turning in the rebound after Kawaguchi's initial reflex save.  Six minutes later, left-back Takahito Soma, formerly of Maritimo and Energie Cottbus,  bursts through two defenders, slaloms round a third and slots in at the opposite post. "That's the way we like it," sing the Kobe fans, moshing at the far end of the pitch. It's very nearly three when Okubo gets on the end of another Popo pass but just fails to jink through  two covering defenders.

And the home (at Home's)

Half time comes, with entertainment provided by a penalty shoot competition for children, a parade of Power Rangers, men in beige slacks repairing divots in the pitch and the travelling Jubilo fans clapping and stomping their way through an elongated version of the Colonel Bogey March. It takes until the 56th minute for their team to manage anything as noticeable themselves, the Brazilian Gilsinho nodding down a Yuichi Komano centre but the ball dribbling wide of Vissel keeper Kenta Tokushige's left-hand post. Kobe reply with a cleverly worked set play which eventually sees Kawaguchi save with his chest from Okubo's shot. Jubilo press forward - Komano stinging Tokushige's fingertips from 25 yards - leaving gaps which Kobe almost exploit when Masahiro Koga miscues a hurried clearance straight to veteran forward Takayuki Yoshida, the defender recovering as Yoshida struggles to control the ball. The anonymous Gilsinho is withdrawn for Tomoyuki Arata and Jubilo pull an unexpected goal back when Japan international Ryoichi Maeda emerges unmarked in the area to head in against his hometown club with ten minutes left to play. "Come on Vissel!!!" the scoreboard implores. It works. Four minutes from time young substitute Ryota Morioka advances onto a Popo lay off and curls a right-footed shot past Tokushige from almost 30 yards. The three points send Kobe up to eighth with just one game of the season - away at Vegalta Sendai - still to play.

Anything you can do...

Date: 27th November 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen (reduced from 3,000 thanks to the sterling efforts of Alan Gibson, owner and editor of the excellent JSoccer Magazine).

Monday, 28 November 2011

Ground 196: Banpaku, Gamba Osaka

"Miracle Gamba!" is the throaty, defiant and, it has to be said, alcohol-induced roar from the Gamba Osaka ultras.  Hundreds of arms point towards the leader, who crouches, blue and black scarf drawn round his neck, on a chair in the centre of the room. The enthusiasm, the perfect certainty of the moment, is infectious; no matter how improbable it seems, all you can think is "Why not?"

 Vegalta Sendai!

This should have already been Gamba's year. With old rivals Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds on the wane, defending champions Nagoya Grampus beset by early season injuries, and newly promoted Kashiwa Reysol supposed to fade once the serious business got underway, Akiro Nishino's side had their best shot at the title since pipping four teams to win it by a point in the final minute of the 2005 season, ending with what football writer and Gamba fan Ben Mabley rightly calls the "preposterous record of 82 goals scored and 58 conceded from 34 games".

Top of the table as late as mid-October, Gamba's trademark defensive frailties resurfaced at the worst possible moment, two blunders from goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya gifting Grampus a 4-1 win on a rain-sodden pitch in Nagoya. Wins over Yamagata and Kashima were followed by a 2-2 draw in Niigata last weekend, leaving last season's runners-up four points adrift of Reysol with two games remaining. This week the club declined to renew Nishino's contract after a decade in charge,  one league title, three domestic cups and an Asian Champions League. "Given the current circumstances this is what I was expecting," Nishino told the Japan Times. "I have to accept and understand the club have a new vision."

 Opened in 1970, Gamba are planning to move from the Banpaku to a 32,000 capacity football specific ground - tentatively (I hope) named the Field of Smile  - in time for the 2014 season.

Formed in 1991 (three years before their city rivals Cerezo) out of the Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic) company team, Gamba attracted the hardcore football support in Japan's traditionally baseball-mad third city. Founder members of the J.League in 1993, the club - whose name derives from a contraction of Gambare, Japanese for 'fight!' - were a side of no more than middling ability before Nishino arrived at the start of 2002.  "He has undoubtedly made a very large and distinguished contribution," Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori told the club's official site. Over pre-match pints I'm handed a felt-tip pen and square of paper to add my own contribution. "Good luck," I scrawl. "But don't go to Urawa."

Smoke bombs explode in the home end as Gamba kick off Nishino's final home game. The travelling Vegalta Sendai support reply with a song to the tune of 'Take Me Home Country Roads', seguing quickly into Twisted Sister's 'We're Not Gonna Take It' and 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones as the fifth-placed visitors make the faster start, Shingo Tomita finding Shingo Akimine in space but the striker stabbing the ball straight at a grateful Fujigaya. The let off stirs Gamba into action, young defender Hiroki Fujiharo having a weak shot smothered at the second attempt before a through ball almost finds its way to South Korean forward Lee Keun-ho, and the Brazilian Rafinha is crowded out by two defenders after the best passing move of the half momentarily frees him in the Sendai area. When the deadlock is finally broken, Akimine merits half an assist, his wasteful shot enabling Gamba to counter at pace, Lee nodding in his 13th league goal of the season after his overhit cross is turned back into the centre. The away team respond on and off the pitch, each new chant prompted by a fan with a megaphone and Unity Japan t-shirt, but national team midfielder Kunimitsu  Sekiguchi wastes their best chance to level when he sidefoots into Fujigaya's midriff with time and space to advance on goal. Moments later, with Vegalta finding gaps down Gamba's right side, Akimine flicks a header wide of the post after Yoshiaki Ota's cross picks him out, unmarked, in the home goalmouth. It's symptomatic of the half: to Sendai the chances, to Gamba the goal.

The second period continues in much the same vein. Ota heads a difficult chance high and wide and an Akimine chest down is hacked unceremoniously away with the Gamba end belting out a song to the tune of La Marseillaise.  Akimine plants another header harmlessly wide, then loses North Korean defender Kim Jung-ya with a clever run but nods just over as the Sendai fans bounce on the spot urging 'Let's go Sendai'. Gamba voices echo back with the potency of a Muslim call to prayer, and when their side do break forward they do so with menace and intent, Lee striking the base of the post on the hour, the rebound fortuitously deflected away for a corner.

With most of Akimine's efforts at goal landing wider of the mark than a Daily Mail editorial it's Sekiguchi who comes closest again, skipping past two defenders before Fujigaya fumbles Ota's weak shot onto the outside of the post. The Brazilian Diego comes on as Sendai push men forward, setting fellow substitute Yuki Moto up for a shot that he lobs high over the bar.  With time ebbing away an impeccably timed sliding tackle from Kim takes the ball off Moto's toes as he shapes to shoot at goal, and an off balance Yuki Nakashima can only head Naoki Sugai's cross out for a goalkick. Before Fujigaya can take it the final whistle blows.

To play badly and yet still win is the hallmark of champions. It's a tag Gamba, now just two points behind Kashiwa in third, hope to regain next weekend.  A miracle for a side with a propensity to fold when the pressure is really on? As Nishino knows only too well, stranger things have happened before.

"Newcastle played here in 1996," remembers one of the Gamba ultras after the game. "They were pissed off at the size of the crowd (just under 7,000, or a third of the Banpaku's 21,000 capacity, saw Les Ferdinand net a last-minute consolation in a 3-1 friendly defeat) but our football culture wasn't developed at the time and most Japanese fans only knew Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Now everyone knows of Newcastle as one of the biggest clubs."  "A lot of Gamba fans think of themselves as the Japanese Newcastle," Ben Mabley tells me. "As cities, they have a very similar relationship to the rest of the country and the same strange accents." "I think Newcastle are more like Kashima Antlers," one of the ultras laughs. "It's always windy there as well."

Date: November 26th 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen.

Many thanks to Ben Mabley for the hospitality, which included the use of his spare mattress in Osaka and an invite to the Gamba ultras' end of season party.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ground 195: Nishikyogoku, Kyoto

The ancient city of Kyoto is home to 1.5 million people, 1,600 temples, 400 shrines, 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one professional football team, Kyoto Sanga (known as Kyoto Purple Sanga until fans complained it was too much of a mouthful to chant), Emperor’s Cup winners in 2002 and the first club of Japan international midfielder Daisuke Matsui, now playing for French side Dijon.

 Hedges! Inflatable chairs! Triangular floodlights! Running track...

Three more things you should know about Kyoto Sanga: they’re one of the oldest football clubs in the country, dating back to the formation of a team at Kyoto Teachers’ University in 1922, Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung played for them between the summer of 2000 and January 2003, and their ground, the 20,500 capacity Nishikyogoku Stadium, is possibly the least popular of any professional side in Japan. “Cold and sterile,” the website Rising Sun News called it, and when you enter the stadium you can see why. There’s the running track and sandpits, the three uncovered stands, and a fourth that has a square roof protruding over the executive boxes and the few hundred VIP seats immediately below.  But cold and sterile doesn’t cover what comes next: the 25-foot inflatable armchairs tied down behind each goal; the selection of slightly unkempt hedges that makes up one half of the home end; the triangular floodlights on gargantuan poles straight out of a Soviet retro design show, one anchored slap in the middle of the away fans’ section, another in the midst of a bunch of trees; the scoreboard that flashes ‘We Go! We Go!’ as the teams step onto the pitch; or the megaphone-toting supporters on raised platforms at the front of the stand who orchestrate the purple-clad ranks as they point, sing and pogo their way through most of the game.

Relegated last season for the fourth time this century, Kyoto have never threatened to make an immediate return to J1, though a late season run of five wins in a row has lifted them into the top half of the table. Tokyo Verdy, former home of Ossie Ardiles (they sacked him too), Benfica’s Hulk and Bismarck (the Brazilian midfielder, not the 19th century Prussian warmonger), are still paying for a disastrous start which has left them a few places but too many points off the third promotion place.  The two or three hundred fans who’ve made the trip to the old capital are housed in the far corner, forested mountains and the setting sun behind, bouncing up and down as they switch between a St Pauli influenced 'That's the Way We Like It' and “Let’s go Verdy!” Both sets of fans seem fairly oblivious to what’s happening on the pitch, which is understandable in a first half whose infrequent highlights include a sliding block from Kyoto’s teenage defender Takayuki Fukumura as 16-goal striker Takuma Abe shapes for a point blank shot at Yuichi Mizutani’s goal, a chip from Jung Woo-young which Verdy’s Takahiro Shibasaki easily saves, and a header off the line by Mitchitaka Akimoto in Verdy’s final attack before the whistle.

 Passing up the chance to buy an £80 replica home top or a ‘Hello Kitty + Kyoto Sanga’ scarf on my way around the main stand, I switch to the opposite scoreboard end in time for the start of the second half, taking up a seat next to a Kyoto fan in a purple rain poncho and surgical face mask that’s surprisingly ben left empty. “Come on Verdy! Come on Verdy!” the away fans sing as their side win a raft of early set pieces only to find the home defence in an impressively resolute mood.  Verdy press hard in midfield, starving the home team of possession and forcing them into some last-ditch tackles, Akimoto taking substitute Hiroki Kawano out on the left of the area only for the resulting free kick to take a double deflection on its way over the bar.  Moments later, the lively Kawano plays Seiichiro Maki in but the striker slips as he gathers the ball and Mizutani easily clears. Kyoto manage to withstand the pressure and launch some brief upfield forays of their own, Ryosuke Sakai pinging a right-footed shot wide before the home fans roar for a penalty when a forward belly flops in the area. With four minutes left, the deadlock is finally broken, substitute Taisuke Nakamura latching onto a Kohei Kudo pass and shooting low and accurately into the left hand corner of the Verdy net. Most of the season-high crowd of 12,287 jump up as much in surprise as in celebration.  For fallen giants Verdy, two-time champions of Japan, it means another season of J2 football. 

 We Go!

Let's Go Verdy!

Floodlight heaven

Fashion hell
Date:  12th November 2011
Admission: 1,500 yen

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Ground 194: Moriyama Stadium, Moriyama City

“I smoked in a crowd,” reads the sign overhead. “I was alone.” “The mother eyed my cigarette as she passed by with her young child,” starts another one. “You tossed your cigarette out of the window,” says one hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a drawing of a cigarette with the word ‘Victim’ printed accusingly above. “You looked like you were fleeing the scene of a crime.” I turn my head towards the door. “I threw my cigarette butt in the drain. That is to say, I hid it in the drain.” The left ear of the person next to me droops to within an inch of my shoulder. It’s eight on a Saturday morning, the train is only at Gifu, and the weekend has already taken its first turn for the bizarre.

         The Shiga Bluecoats
 I arrive in Kyoto, shuffle up the stairs behind someone dressed in a maroon puffer jacket with ‘Detroit Kill City’ stitched across the chest, and take five escalators to the Happy Terrace rooftop garden (“Creation of environment friendly urban life space and place of information transmission.”). The trees are still green and the outside temperature is 21 degrees but workmen are already putting up the giant Kyoto Station Christmas tree. “Lets Merry!” exclaims a sign outside Starbucks. A cleaner in a light blue and baby pink jockey’s suit runs a vacuum across the escalator steps. I head back down to the platform and the next train to Katata. 

 From the old to the new, I cross the neck of Lake Biwa – formed around five million years ago, some say by the same earthquake which created Mount Fuji – on a concrete bridge, supping Kirin Beer. A right turn at the other side, past a love hotel cluster - £20 for a ‘rest’, an extra tenner for ‘service time’ and twenty on top for an overnight sleep, though the mind boggles at the kinkiness going on in the Lego-block Chapel Christmas  - and I’m at the ground just in time to see Sagawa Shiga and Sony Sendai FC, top and bottom in the semi-professional Japan Football League, come out of the solitary stand, flanked by two rows of cheerleaders in red miniskirts and sequined pom-poms. “Sony Sendai,” yells a bespectacled man in chinos and a baseball cap, a drum and cardboard box placed either side of his feet. At the other end of the stand the forty-strong Shiga supporters’ group test out their loudhailers and launch into songs to the tune of Rule Britannia, Smoke on the Water and It’s Off to Work We Go from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Backed by Sagawa Express, one of Japan’s largest parcel delivery companies, with a client list that’s included Amway, Amazon, the Yamada Denki electronics chain, Tsutaya bookstores and the Japanese mafia, Shiga were formed in 2007 with the merger of Sagawa’s successful company sides in Osaka and Tokyo. Relocated to the firm’s home prefecture, the new club have won the JFL in two of the following four seasons, finished second once and lead this year’s competition by four points from Parceiro Nagano.   Forty years older, Sony Sendai were established as the works team of a Sony branch office, but play a distant second fiddle to neighbours Vegalta, who play two levels higher in Japan’s top-flight league. Their place at the foot of the table has more to do with the devastation wrought by March’s tsunami than their lack of quality on the field, with the team having played just over half the games of the division’s seventeen other clubs. 

 Let's dance
Patient and controlled in possession, Sendai dictate the pace from defence, an off-colour Shiga hustling the ball to little avail. Yuki Miyao wastes the away side’s best chance of the half, looping a free header over the bar with thirty minutes played. Skipper Nobumitsu Yamane puts a right-footed shot wide of the post for Shiga but that’s nothing compared to the action on the side of the pitch, a barefoot fan in a ‘Tran’sport Communication Sawaga’ cape leading a group of around a hundred schoolgirls wearing blue t-shirts with ‘Thanks for all…’ on the back in a choreographed song and  dance routine which ends with a shimmy to the left, mass fist pumping and a high-pitched eruption of ‘Hey, Hey, Heys!’  Things get even more Butlins Holiday Camp at half time when a singer starts belting out a love ballad on an electric keyboard while three stewards do overhead claps and star jumps on the running track behind. I try to track down a beer stand but find nothing but candy floss, chicken on a stick and a sculpture park of stone animals back beside the turnstile. 

 And sing...

With most of the away fans distracted by their make-up mirrors Sendai fashion the first chance of the second half, their ponytailed strikeforce combining as Jumpei Murata slides in Kouhei Aso to put a rising effort wide of goal. Shiga go long towards big forward Hideyuki Takeya and are almost rewarded when a chest down is whipped off the toes of Yuta Hamada as he homes in on Sasumu Kaneko in the Sendai goal. Shiga waste two free kicks and I walk towards the turnstile thinking it’s not going to be their day, before a pair of quick goals in the last ten minutes gives them an undeserved three points. I scurry back to Katata, making it to the platform as the tannoy announces the approach of the 15.08 to Kyoto.

Date: 12th November 2011
Admission: 1,000 yen. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Ground 193: Toyota Stadium, Toyota City

After the usually incredulous “Why?” the thing I get asked most often about groundhopping is “What’s the best place you’ve ever been to, then?”  It’s an almost impossible question to answer (How do you begin to quantify the experiences and emotions bound up with visits to football grounds? Is the Nou Camp better because it’s the Nou Camp? Does the Daejeon World Cup Stadium rate any higher because of the atmosphere on the night South Korea beat Italy?), but I can say without any doubt that the best looking stadium I’ve ever seen is the Toyota Stadium  in Aichi Prefecture, Japan.

Completed in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of Toyota City, home, unsurprisingly, of the Toyota Motor Corp, the Toyota Stadium was among Japan’s original list of fifteen candidate cities for the 2002 World Cup but failed to make the final cut of ten due to political machinations that, as academics Wolfram Manzenreiter and John Horne noted, may or may not have included Toyota’s rivalry with Nissan Motors and the willingness of Nagoya’s residents to publically oppose wasteful public spending projects.  

With a stadium design by the world renowned Kisho Kurokawa – the architect behind the new wing at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the international airports in Astana and Kuala Lumpur, The Big Eye World Cup Stadium in Oita and Zenit St Petersburg's long-awaited new ground (a close copy, incidentally, of his Toyota design) – the city government pressed on regardless, scaling back the maximum possible capacity by a quarter to 45,000 but otherwise sticking to Kurokawa’s original vision. And what a vision it is: bordered by the Yanagi River, rice paddy fields and pear farms, the stadium has a retractable fabric roof that folds back in on itself like a Japanese paper fan, a scoreboard which can be moved fifty metres up or down and slid anywhere between the goal and the halfway line, a 38-degree gradient to the stands and four masts holding up the permanent roofs, providing unimpeded views of the pitch from every single one of the 43,000 regular seats, an indoor swimming pool and exterior lighting that changes colour to coordinate with the neighbouring Toyota Bridge. “One of the most beautiful stadiums in the world,” ex-Nagoya, Roda and PSV manager Sef Vergoossen said. He wasn’t wrong:

 Crossing Toyota Bridge.

 The scoreboard and retractable roof.

 The teams come out.

  The away end

Now jointly used by Nagoya Grampus (who divide their home games with the much older Mizuho Athletics Stadium back in Nagoya) and rugby union team Toyota Verblitz, the stadium has also hosted three Japan internationals, four FIFA Club World Cups and will be one of the venues for the Rugby World Cup in 2019.  It’s a fifty-minute train ride from central Nagoya to Toyotashi on the Tsuramai Subway and Meitetsu Toyota Lines, then a quarter of an hour walk over several pedestrian crossings and the skeletal Toyota Bridge. Twinned with Derby and Detroit and home to 1,345 industrial plants, Toyota’s a “city of radiant people with environmental consciousness and dynamic growth” according to its website, but the most exciting thing you’re likely to see between the station and the ground is the side-by-side presence of a McDonald’s and a Lotteria burger franchise. A much better choice is the Coco Curry Ichiban concession in the car park outside the east stand. “Good smell, good curry” as it says on the side of the van. 

 The Coco Ichiban van (in yellow)

With four games to play defending champions Nagoya are third in the league, two points adrift of Gamba Osaka and three behind surprise package Kashiwa Reysol. “Have a Confidence” urges a banner behind the home goal, though Cerezo Osaka take an early lead on grammatical accuracy: “Osaka City Football Club” and “Real Osaka Ultras 1994” their flags proclaim, in pointed digs at their city rivals Gamba. 

The sides line up in matching 4-5-1s but it’s Cerezo, with Fabio Lopes and the highly-rated Japan international Hirotsugu Kiyotake (rumoured to be off to Stuttgart at the season’s end) buzzing around off Rui Komatsu, who settle first, narrowly missing Seigo Narazaki’s left-hand post with the opening attack of the afternoon. Nagoya are comparatively sluggish lack up front but respond to the threat by pushing their back four forward, squeezing the space in midfield and rendering Lopes and Kiyotake virtually anonymous for the remainder of the game. Takahiro Masukawa heads wide from a Kennedy cross and Yoshizumi Ogawa has a tame effort gathered by Kim Jin-Hyeon in the away goal as Grampus begin to find their range. On twenty-four minutes Cerezo unwisely concede a free kick and Jungo Fujimoto bends a left-footed effort that soars over the wall and inches wide of Kim’s slow motion dive. Komatsu equalises from the penalty spot after a clumsy trip by Musukawa, but the parity lasts just six minutes before Ogawa swings in a free-kick from the left and Joshua Kennedy brushes past a defender to head in a training ground goal, his seventeenth of the season. “Forza Grampus! Ole! Ole! Ole!” sing the Nagoya fans to the tune of Yellow Submarine. “We knew set pieces were a strong point of Nagoya’s game,” Cerezo’s Brazilian coach Levir Culpi complains afterwards. 
 Fujimoto over the wall?
With Nagoya now happy to sit on their lead, Cerezo are given more possession in the second half but are rarely able to threaten, managing just five shots all game. With fourteen minutes left Kim palms a volleyed shot back into a crowded area and young substitute forward Kensuke Nagai turns the rebound past a defender on the line. It’s a performance that owes more to Stoke City than Arsenal, but with 270 minutes of the season left and already relegated Montedio Yamagata the Toyota’s final visitors Dragan Stojkovic’s side are still in with a shout of their second title in a row. 


Full time. 

Date: November 3rd 2011
Admission: 2,200 yen.