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.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Ground 192: Nagaragawa Stadium, Gifu

A uniformed official in a peaked cap and face mask runs white-gloved hands down both sides of my bag at the entrance to FC Gifu’s Nagaragawa Stadium, while a second holds out a free programme in a club branded carrier bag and a third politely snips the edge off my ticket. Two bows and a choral thank you later and I’m inside. Food stalls sell Asahi beer in paper cups, hamburgers, skewered chicken, grilled octopus and rice flour dumplings dipped in soy, while three squad players sign autographs in a corridor and the oendan supporter groups hang out their flags: ‘Hellas Gifu’, ‘La Nagaragawa’, ‘Now and Here!’, ‘We Love You FC Gifu’ and ‘Techniek Hartstocht’ (Technique and Passion if you trust Google’s ability to translate from the Dutch). 

At first glance the Nagaragawa is as unpromising a venue as most other Japanese football grounds. There’s the same concrete bowl exterior, the running track and hoardings keeping you further away from the action than Victor Valdes, the Brobdignagian-sized Subbuteo scoreboard, backless plastic seats, and the main stand roof, as wide and flat as a windowsill and ergonomically designed to shelter no more than five of the seats below. And then there’s the grass. Clipped to the length of a tennis court, kerbstone stepped at two-metre intervals and covering the upper half of no fewer than three sides of the ground, it’s precisely the kind of quirky horticultural feature that distinguishes a genuine football stadium from your common or garden multi-purpose facility.  All that’s missing is a Brechin City hedge. Or maybe a Loko Vltavin one.  With the rain teeming down and the few steps under cover already full – only the umbrella carrying, plastic poncho wearing oendan are braving the elements tonight – I head along to the far side of the stand where around a hundred Sagan Tosu fans are segregated by two lengths of rope and a sign saying Keep Out in English and Japanese. 

 After Gifu’s meteoric rise through the lower leagues – they won every game they played between late-2002 and their promotion to the Tokai Regional League in 2004 - the grass has recently been significantly greener off the pitch than on it for the hard-up club.  Only five wins all season have left Takahiro Kimura’s side firmly rooted to the foot of the table, twelve points and a negative goal difference of thirty-one behind second bottom Gainare Tottori.  Sagan – the only team to have played in all thirteen seasons of Japan’s second-tier professional league, are threatening to escape J2 for the first time since their last set of bankruptcy hearings, an unbeaten run of ten wins and three draws propelling them to second in the league with just six games remaining. With fourteen goals shipped in three successive defeats, Kimura makes five changes and switches his formation to a 4-2-3-1, the on-loan Omiya Ardija player Ryohei Arai given the job of buffering the two centre backs, Shogo Shimada and Hidemi Jinushizono hugging the flanks so tightly they could almost be wearing running spikes instead of studs, and big striker Yudai Nishikawa brought in as the pivot up front.

The two sides cross the running track to the noise of piped music, Sagan fans pogoing under their pink and blue flags and Gifu bounding rhythmically to the beat of a drum. It’s the league’s whipping boys who immediately look the better team, the constant pressing from Nishikawa and Shimada unsettling Sagan’s play while Jinushizono's relationship to his marker is like that of matador to an enraged bull. In the 16th minute the little winger’s cross finds Shimada, whose shot is blocked by a defender’s hand. “Akahoshi,” the Sagan fans chant at their goalkeeper, but Shimada coolly Panenkas him to give his side their first lead in four games.  The closest Sagan come to mustering a reply is a header from ex-Vitória  Setúbal midfielder Kim Byung-suk which 20-year-old keeper Goro Kawanami watches past his post and a free-kick from the same player which Kawanami erratically fists into the ground and away for a corner. Everything is going exactly to Kimura’s plan until full-back Kazuki Murakami damages his knee ligaments midway through the half, necessitating a reshuffle which sees Yuki Oshitani brought on to play off Nishikawa and Shimada covering in defence. No longer able to outflank their opponents, Gifu go down the middle instead, Arai playing a ball over the top for Nishikawa, who shrugs off Keita Isozaki and, with the very last kick of the half, finds the corner of the net via Akahoshi’s right hand. The Sagan fans – who’ve been bouncing up and down singing "Ey! Ey! Sagan Tosu" while fanning the air in front of their faces – go quiet as their team troops off, one spending the half-time break with his eyes screwed shut, head bowed and palms pressed together in front of his face. 

The Shinto gods respond by turning Gifu back into their ordinary selves. Within fifteen minutes Yohei Toyoda brings the scores level, the panicking home defenders twice failing to clear crosses into the box. A minute later Kawanami fumbles a bouncing ball, but manages to scissor kick Ryuhei Niwa’s shot away. A punt upfield finds Oshitani, who manoeuvres past two challenges and bends the ball around the retreating goalkeeper. A Hollywood goal, but it doesn’t count for any more than the scruffy flick off Toyoda’s head ten minutes later which gives the striker his 20th goal of the season and his first ever J-League hat-trick.  

It takes until the 83rd minute for Gifu to renew their passing acquaintance with the ball, Nishikawa attempting a Zola backheel flick which hits against a defender’s shin and dribbles over the line off his big toe.  With time running out and both sides kicking the ball in any direction they can, a mishit shot falls to Niwa, his jab at goal evading Kawanami’s left glove and putting Sagan three points clear of fourth-placed Tokushima Vortis, who they face in the Pocari Sweat Stadium in the season’s penultimate game. 

“We worked really hard but in the end we just couldn’t win,” Gifu midfielder Kazanori Kan tells the club website. “We were lucky to draw,” says Sagan’s Naoyuki Fujita. “Not good enough,” reckons their South Korean manager Yoon Jung-hwan.  “Control Gifu and you control Japan” was a favoured axiom of the Warring States Period. Sagan Tosu will settle for their first ever promotion and a season in J1. 

Date: 30th October 2011
Admission: 1,500 yen