With Grampus’ last three home league games of the season either taking place at the football-only Toyota Stadium or, in the case of Saturday’s potential title-decider against Gamba Osaka, sold out before my belated attempts to procure tickets, the Emperor’s Cup second round game with Suzuka Rampole was potentially my last opportunity to see a game at the Mizuho. Rampole – probably the only team in world football to derive the second word of their name from the pseudonym of a mystery novel writer - play in the first division of the amateur Tokai League, four divisions beneath the reigning Japanese champions, but with Grampus facing their third home cup tie in seven days and Gamba next up, coach Dragan Stojkovic had already revealed his plans to rest most of his regular starting eleven. Out went last season’s J-League Player of the Year Seigo Narazaki, Australian forward Josh Kennedy and the Brazilian-born defender Marco Tulio Tanaka, in came ex-Tokyo Verdy keeper Yoshinari Takagi, 20-year-old midfielder Taishi Taguchi and Kensuke Nagai, a recent star of Japan’s Under-22 side.
The main standWith just fifty minutes to spare between getting out of work and the scheduled kick off, there was no time added on for stoppages in my final lesson of the day, the students shooed out to facilitate a race to the station and a just-in-the-nick-of-time arrival at the Mizuho ticket booth. Hand waving and repetition of the word for ‘cheap’ got me a 2,000 yen ticket alongside Nagoya’s ultras in an uncovered end behind the goal (even with the fall in the value of the pound from 248 yen in 2008 to 117 yen today that’s still only slightly more expensive than a seat at some League Two grounds). “Forza Grampus!” the six or seven hundred ultras chanted in unison, part of an impressive repertoire which peaked at a catchy ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh’ number accompanied by mass bunny hops and a bass drum solo. ‘Here is our Treasure’, ‘This is Home’, ‘La Famiglia Rosso Giallo’ and ‘Pixi’ read the banners tied around the running track boundary. At the opposite end of the pitch, around 200 Suzuka fans – bussed in from neighbouring Mie Prefecture for what would inevitably be their team’s last game of the season – pogoed around the empty spaces, waving giant flags in the manner of a Formula One marshal.
The Grampus ultras
Nagoya started with Montenegro international Igor Burzanović behind Nagai and Stojkovic doing his customary pacing of the touchline. Within 19 minutes his team was two goals to the good, Burzanović opening the scoring on the quarter hour before Koji Hashimoto rounded Makoto Mizutani in the Suzuka goal after the visitors lost possession and were picked apart on the counter. Tidy in possession but toothless in attack, Rumpole’s problems were compounded when forward Jumpei Yano was shown his second yellow card with ten minutes of the half to play, moments after Burzanović had added a third. Suzuka sit deep, not bothering to press the ball until Nagoya cross the halfway line, and leaving themselves vulnerable to pace and overlapping attackers – a combination of which indirectly resulted in the home side’s fourth goal, defender Tatsuya Arai heading in direct from a corner. There was still time in the half for Hashimoto to slip a first time shot inches wide after a one-touch passing move undressed the away side down the left. Suzuka’s only reply was a forward burst from centre-half Shinpei Sakaki, which ended when he blazed his shot horizontally across Takagi’s goal. A minute-long rendition of ‘Nagoya Grampus’ serenaded Stojkovic’s side off the field at half-time.
My vantage point
“There is always the possibility of the unexpected,” Stojkovic had said in his pre-match press conference, but the second half was as predictable as the first. Nagoya, now able to open up space at will, were content to play keep ball as Suzuka encamped themselves between the halfway line and the edge of their area. Akira Tanaka came on for Nagai after 55 minutes, making an immediate impression as he leisurely slid past two defenders before placing his shot straight at the goalkeeper. Suzuka managed a long range shot into Takagi’s chest and another which rolled just wide with the goalkeeper flailing, but in the 80th minute Tanaka got the goal he’d been waiting for, sidefooting home after two Grampus players had worked the ball around the exposed Masanori Murata in the Suzuka defence. The left-back had better luck moments later when he headed the ball off his own line, though Grampus added a sixth regardless, Burzanović’s 88th minute shot striking a defender’s boot and trickling apologetically over the line. At the final whistle Suzuka’s players and coaching staff were afforded a heroes’ reception by the away support while the Grampus team bowed an acknowledgement to each of the stands in turn before lining up to salute the ultras.
Now in its 91st year, the Emperor’s Cup is Japan’s most prestigious knock-out competition, stretching to seven rounds, eighty-eight teams and a New Year’s Day final at Tokyo’s National Stadium. Nagoya - two-time winners of the tournament in the 1990s - progress to play J2 side Giravanz Kitakyushu in mid-November’s third round, with potential ties against fellow title challengers Kashiwa Reysol and Yokohama Marinos to come before a December 29th semi-final. For Stojkovic, who recently lambasted his team for “playing like high school students” during a 2-0 defeat in Shimizu, a league and cup double remains a tantalising possibility.
Admission: 2,000 yen
Date: October 12th 2011
Attention Premier League clubs: this man brings beer to your seat and collects the empties afterwards.