Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ground 247: Saitama Stadium 2002 Complex

If English football fans remember the Saitama Stadium at all, it's as the place where Danny Mills blundered his way through the second half of a World Cup group stage game against Sweden.  For the Japanese, it's the home of their biggest, reddest and most hated club side, Urawa having deliciously squandered an opportunity to clinch the J.League championship in front of 57,000 fans by losing 2-0 to second-placed Gamba Osaka at the weekend.  Today, the fourth pitch of the Saitama Stadium complex is where the back-to-back semi-finals of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup are being played out, the first a Tama Derby between Toshiba Fuchu and Ome FC attended by precisely 21 spectators, one dog, a suitcase on wheels and a baloon cutlass.

Ome, league champions of a group which included Tokyo Gas, Fuji Xerox, Nomura Research Institute and Sperio Johoku, go into the game as favourites, having already made the final stages of the All-Japan Club Football Championships, though Toshiba, runners up in their own league section to HBO Tokyo, are, like Gamba, no slouches themselves, soundly thrashing the likes of FC Steam, Sumitomo Corporation and Tokyo Bay FC in a campaign which yielded an average of over four goals per game.  Even allowing for the lack of defensive mishaps from Leeds United right-backs, I had this marked down as a high-scoring encounter.

My journey takes 45 minutes, three trains and the same number of prefectures, skirting the route I'd taken to the main stadium nine years earlier and culminating, like then, in a cornucopia of Uwara Reds-branded vending machines, autographed posters, flags on lampposts and a supporters' club banner for every season since 1991, their slogans alternating Eurovision kitsch and the stock phrases of a wedding hall:  Rising Reds, Heart-full Wonderland, Go On Sailing, Sing Out Together Heartily, Forever Always and Take Off Together Now.

With the previous two teams yet to leave the pitch, Toshiba warm-up by playing keep-ball on a tarmacked square while Ome get changed by a flowerbed.  The late arrivals carry the early momentum, their first overlap prompting a chant of  'Ome FC' from the trio of travelling fans occupying a single concrete step, but it's the opposition who break the deadlock, the goal swiftly answered by seven claps, one consonant and two vowel sounds from the visiting support.

 The fourth pitch with the main stadium behind.

Ome waste their first chance to level the scores, the Fuchu backline vainly appealing for offside as a forward  weakly lobs wide in a manner which suggests he's been picking up shooting tips from Mario Balotelli's time on Merseyside. Besides a rebound which is booted clear of the Ome goalline and a Fuchu sidefoot over the bar that has an entire line of substitutes dropping to their knees, the only other action of note in a frankly dull first half is the number of times Toshiba's bench shouts "Hey! Hey! Hey!" when a red-and-black shirt goes tumbling unrewarded in the box.

"Lalalala," urge the visiting trio as second period begins with their team on the attack and me halfway through a second can of Kirin's special winter limited beer. Ome switch the ball with menace, finally equalising when a header bounces on the artificial surface and is hooked into the goal.  Fuchu respond with a free-kick that's pushed away and then gathered under the crossbar, but they're unable to keep possession for any period of time and it's no surprise when Ome score again, a free-kick foreheaded in from close range. "Come on," shout their three supporters, briefly waving a blue and green flag, the moulded studs of the next two sides due on already clattering on concrete.

Admission:  Free
Date: Monday November 24th 2014

Friday, 21 November 2014

Ground 246: National Training Centre, Akabane Forest Park

Just a couple of weeks after the All-Japan Club Football Championships I'm back scurrying through the backstreets of the capital's north-west suburbs to catch the first round of the Tokyo Senior League Division Two Cup, in which Sperio Johoku - "Believe in the Dream! Run to J.League" - are hosting Elyse FCDX, a club whose name sounds a bit too much like a bad night out in a Roppongi nightclub.

Sperio are about to celebrate their tenth anniversary of tilting at the J.League but have been caught five promotions short since 2009, their latest league season ending with 11 wins, two draws, 67 goals, a fully fledged ultras group and nothing a runners-up place behind Ome FC.

I arrive at the same time as the Zorro Azul, who are busily unpacking their banner displays and food bags; blue flags and bento boxes, canned coffee and synchronised chanting.  They cluster together in a corner of the 1,000-capacity stand, which faces out over an artificial pitch, landscaped forest trail and a pair of car parks.  "Sperio Johoku!" roars the leader through a megaphone, drawing four syllables out of the first word and shrinking the second down to two.  The two sets of players meet in the centre circle, shake hands and respectfully bow to the stand. "Ole! Ole!" the blue shirts answer, the din continuing unabated for the first five minutes then stopping abruptly, the megaphone downed and replaced, temporarily, by a suburban silence punctuated by traffic noise and the players' shouts.

The home team are all darting runs and flicked passes in the opposing half, but a bit less sure-footed when possession flows the other way. "Joh, Joh, Johoku," rumbles swiftly down the stand as a player bodyswerves an Elyse defender and backheels the ball away from a second. "Oh Sperio, come on Sperio."  The away side intercept,  advance, spread the play to an overlapping midfielder and smack a shot into the net. "Yaa-hoe," scream the visiting substitutes.  The Zorro Azul clap and stomp on regardless.

Neither the noise nor the home club's efforts to muster a goal let up,  the number 9, Nagasawa, slaloming through the area but stumbling as he shoots into bodies.  A second chance is stalled by the snap of a linesman's flag and a third goes begging when a player politely eases up enabling the keeper to collect a bouncing through ball, screams of "Clatter him" or "Get stuck in, man" conspicuously absent as the fans yell on with their support.

Two peeps signal the close of the eight-minute interval, Sperio first back off the touchline as Elyse huddle in a group.  Johoku's number 10 hits the post with a free kick, the Elyse keeper makes a springing save and Nagasawa lofts another half chance into a wire fence.  At the other end, Elyse almost turn in a second but have to settle for a corner which travels all the way across the six-yard-line, meets Hiroshi Kumagai's forehead and bounces into the goal.  The away side celebrate en masse with some Bebeto-inspired arm swinging by the corner flag; Sperio's fans refuse to acknowledge the blow, pogoing with their flags and scarves at the other end of the stand.

 Johoku keep pressing but Elyse largely keep control, Nagasawa drawing appreciative nods from a scout and a save from the keeper after evading a pair of tackles but the away side otherwise restricting the blue shirts to potshots from range.  Off the pitch, only a double substitution quietens the home fans, the corner hushed while the referee checks off the names.   And then, with just three minutes left, a hopeful forward ball sees a Johoku player drift off his inattentive marker and almost apologetically nod into the net.  Sperio race back with the ball, launch it back into the area, and Nagasawa controls with one touch and hits the bottom corner with the second, the referee checking his watch with the Zorro Blue are in mid-Theme from the Monkees.

We're straight into penalties, Elyse missing their opening kick while Sperio convert their first two.  But then the third Johoku player chips against the goalkeeper's legs, Elyse keep on scoring, and when Nagasawa clears the bar it's finally all over.  The blue shirts clamber up the stairs, line up in front of the stand, apologise for the loss and bow once again to the fans, who respond with a choral burst of "Sperio Johoku", the team joining in the refrain.  Elyse take the spoils on the pitch but Johoku retain the honours off it.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday November 16th 2014

Monday, 17 November 2014

Ground 243 - 245: 21st All-Japan Club Football Championships

A holiday weekend, 16 qualifiers representing ten regional associations, four pitches - three inside the 1964 Olympic Park - two time slots per day, a £3 souvenir programme and free entry to the matches themselves.  There's no Wembley final, two-legged tussles, midwinter postponements or complaints about the dominance of the Northern League, but this is as close as Japanese football comes to the English FA Vase.

My tournament began on finals weekend at a rainy Komazawa Park, three stops from Shibuya and formerly host to a Tokugawa shogun, US Army officers' club, the 3rd Asian Games, the 1964 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Tokyo Ramen Show. Originally picked as the main site for the cancelled 1940 games, the park served as the city's second venue 24 years later and is now a public space with baseball, softball and athletics venues, a memorial museum, bike rental, concrete Jenga tower, cherry trees,  a dog run, outdoor swimming pool and leafy jogging trail, "causing inconvenience to others" and "counter-clockwise runners" prominent among the list of impermissible acts.

The first round pitched local favourites and two-time Japan Youth Cup winners Mitsubishi Yowa against a side of Kagoshima University graduates on the Number 2 Ball Sports Ground.  First used for field hockey in 1964, it has one stand, a scoreboard and trees blocking the view of the neighbouring pitch, where Osaka's Kandai Club 2010 were dismantling a team from Shizuoka.  One photographer and a huddle of 50 or so umbrellas are in attendance, a solitary travelling fan tying a flag above the rain-spattered bench seats as the two sides shelter in gazebos. 

While the players come from opposite ends of the country, the style of football is common to all: played at a zip with brittle defences, little pressure in midfield and lots of neat-and-tidy passing which tends to fizzle out when it comes anywhere near the goal.  Mitsubishi work the game's first opening, eliciting a fisted save and a strangulated cry from a spectator sporting headwear shaped like a birthday cake and a t-shirt which reads, in mellifluous gibberish, 'Too Much Loud Could Says All the Candies All the Time.' He's even less happy when Kagoshima ruffle the net, two lofted corners causing all kinds of consternation in the Mitsubishi defence before an outstretched boot stabs a loose ball past the scrambling keeper and a posse of falling bodies on the line.  The lead lasts all of a minute before a soft free kick trickles into an unguarded corner of the Kyushu side's goal, a hat topped with red-and-white striped candles tossed exultantly into the air.

Both teams come bounding back out from half-time teamtalks in their respective gazebos, some adroit twisting and turning by a corner flag earning Mistubishi a second goal when the subsequent cross is headed through the goalkeeper's hands.  As he hunches Mannone-like hurling insults at his gloves, Kagoshima break quickly upfield and level the scores.  Yowa have a penalty appeal waved away, a shot hacked off the line, an abysmal spot-kick easily saved and then sneak a winning goal in the final minute of extra-time.  The rain thunders down, and only the hardiest of counter-clockwise runners, a few dozen specatators shivering under brollies and the men from Mitsubishi survive.

A couple of hundred metres away, past poncho-clad ramen sellers, military recruitment stands and a teenage girl band pogoing on a covered stage, a sparse crowd is gathered under the roof of Komazawa Athletics Field for the Derby della Diesel Engine, Yanmar Amagasaki of the Hyogo Prefectural League taking on Toyota Motor Hokkaido Soccer Club in a stadium with scant lighting, a blue running track and 20,000 largely empty seats. The stadium hosted seven football matches in 1964, two Emperor's Cup Finals and J-League side Tokyo Verdy, once home to Hulk and Ossie Ardiles; today, on a sodden grass pitch, both non-league teams are zinging the ball around confidently, Amagasaki scoring first when a forward zips through the centre of defence, easing the ball round the keeper as he comes sliding out.  Yanmar dominate, adding a second goal through a deflection before Toyota Motor get a respite from the penalty spot shortly after half-time.  Amagasaki reassert themselves, restoring the two-goal advantage after a defensive error, a drop of the shoulder and a clip off an ankle which sends the ball spiralling into the net. Toyota squeeze a second, a cross fortuitously spinning in between the goalkeeper and a post, and then equalise with five minutes left to play. Back come Yanmar, the ball arriving at the feet of a substitute and his instinctive daisycutter bending into the net.  Game over I think, making my way down the empty orange-and-blue rows to the exit.  But then Toyota get a second penalty and calmly despatch it into the space vacated by the Yanmar goalkeeper's dive.

The first half of extra time is uneventful, the second even more so until two atempts are frantically cleared off the line and a third is headed in.  The Amagasaki scorer celebrates like he's just won the tournament; Toyota don't respond.  Two games, two grounds and fourteen goals isn't a bad return for a rainy Saturday. 

Forty-eight hours later I'm on the other side of Tokyo for the first semi-final at Nishigaoka Stadium.  Built six years after the Tokyo Olympics, the football-only ground is managed by the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences and was previously home to FC Tokyo as well as the venue for some of Tokyo Verdy's peripatetic wanderings around the capital city, though its capacity falls just shy of the 10,000 seats required for permanent J.League membership. Not that anywhere near that number are needed today, a few hundred neutrals, fifty odd Nankatsu SC and a dozen or so Thespa Kusatsu Challengers fans comprising the crowd for the 11am start.  Affiliated to a J2 side, the Challengers are the tournament favourites, scoring seven times in dispensing with Nagoya's AS Kariya and then Yanmar Amagasaki on the previous two days.  Nankatsu, who I'd seen just over a week earlier narrowly failing to earn promotion from the ninth-tier Tokyo Senior League Division Three, have eliminated Kyushu's Kashima SC and Tokyo division two side Ome FC.  "Fly to Wings", "Vamos SC!" and "Get Goal" urge the banners pinned behind their goal. "Powered By Kusatsu" is slung across the opposite end, where the travelling contingent have gathered with a bass drum and flags.  The underdogs fire one effort past the post and force the Kusatsu keeper into a scrambling save, but tire late on as Kusatsu clatter the post, scoop a penalty horribly high and wide, and then force the ball over the line in a goalmouth melee, the whole team rushing behind the goal to celebrate with their fans.  The beaten side have only a third-placed certificate - shared with Mitsubishi Yowa, who were beaten 2-1 by Kandai 2010 in a game played immediately after Nankatsu depart the pitch - and the acclaim of the opposition support to show at the end of a season of near misses.  "We didn't achieve our target," apologises a club official, "but we've taken an important step towards it."

The following day, I'm back at work as Thespa defeat Kandai in an afternoon kick-off watched by 162 at Komazawa Athletics Field. It's not quite Wembley - even for a Vase Final - but Kusatsu don't mind a bit.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Saturday 1st and Monday 3rd November 2014.