'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).