Friday, 12 December 2014

Ground 249: Kashima Soccer Stadium

They've had it all at Kashima Antlers: superstar Brazilians, seven league titles, nine domestic cups, one treble and three world champions.  Along the way they've sent two Japanese internationals to Serie A, one to Schalke and a Champions League semi-final, hosted three World Cup fixtures and netted one of the greatest individual goals you're ever likely to see.  Not bad for a club which attracts average crowds of under 20,000 and was once told its chance of getting J.League membership stood as low as "0.0001%."

The current crop of Antlers are nowhere near as storied as the likes of Zico, Leonardo, Bebeto or Uchida, but in Gaku Shibasaki and Caio, who left Sao Paulo behind for Japanese high school football and is now touted as a future Samurai Blue, they have a pair of young players of genuine star potential.  They also began the final day of J1 matches as one of three sides who could still top the table, two points behind title favourites Gamba Osaka, who travelled to already relegated Tokushima Vortis, and the stuttering long-time leaders Urawa Reds. 

"Very nice stadium but a bit of a trek to the middle of nowhere," Gamba fan, Guardian writer and Japanese TV star Ben Mabley had warned, though I'd worked out the accuracy of that second clause for myself long before arriving at Kashima Jingu Station - two platforms, one train every hour on Saturday evenings and the final stop on a line which takes in one floating torii gate, several concrete bridges and an innumerable number of paddy fields.  The town has 60,000 people and very little that isn't almost entirely centred on either its football club or shrine, purportedly first raised 1,500 years ago and still home to a two-storied gate, the kind of sword you'd expect to see Ned Stark wielding and the Japanese god of thunder.  Outside the station, the tourist information booth stocks religious guides alongside Antlers biscuits, key rings and stuffed toys; flags flutter by carpark exits, stone footballs ornament street corners and shop windows are adorned with the club badge or players' faces advertising the goods inside.  At the Cheerio Mall, three traffic lights down and four across from the shrine entrance, the staff are dressed in Kashima home shirts and there's a Zico Mini Museum at the foot of the escalators, young children and the elderly staring at TV screens while a life-size statue of the Brazilian looks back across two aisles of shoes and a cosmetics stand. 

Back at the station, it's a 25-minute walk along the side of the main road to Mito or a single stop on the matchday-only train service to Kashima Soccer Stadium, whose concrete curves loom suddenly above the tree cover as you round an otherwise unremarkable bend next to a supermarket and a 100 yen store. The first football-specific venue in Japan, the 40,000-capacity stadium was damaged in 2011's Tohoku earthquake but remains a mightily impressive sight despite beginning to show signs of its age.  The socio gates are already busy an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, red shirted supporters preparing banner displays, the light blue and pink of Sagan Tosu - which I'd last seen on a foul night in Gifu three years ago - sit out in the sun, and from the back of the east stand you can see all the way to wind turbines, smoke stacks, two lighthouses and a cartoonishly hued Pacific Ocean.

"Sagan Tosu!" the away end bops, fans clinging on to vertical streamers while swinging a flag back and forth like an executioner's axe.  The home fans don't reply until the moment their team enters the field, instantaneously bursting into a 15-minute long rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In as the players begin their warm-up with a group bow.  Four giant banners are rolled across the twin-tiered home end, one showing a deer with a samurai sword, another bearing the message: 'Kashima Antlers Soul Supporter Red Storm Inflight'.   The whole stand pogoes in unison, an red-and-black image sloganned Spirit of Zico making its way towards the pitch. 

Sagan score after just six minutes, Yoshiki Takahashi turning in his only goal of the season as the continuous Kashima din is very briefly topped by the sudden roar of the visiting support.  The Reds ratchet up the noise as their team push for an equaliser, but too many unforced errors in possession allow Tosu to comfortably play out the remainder of the half.  "Hey! Hey! Antlers!" the red shirts pump out as the sides re-enter the field.  Kashima strike the top of the crossbar with a header Tosu's Akihiro Hayashi has well covered and overhit a succession of corner kicks - one so far it gifts Sagan the ball on halfway and has the Antlers' keeper frantically scurrying for the cover of his goal - before some neat triangular passing and a fortuitous bounce puts Yashushi Endo free for a shot he smashes wide.  Shuhei Akasaki balloons into the crowd, Shibasaki crashes the ball back off an advertising hoarding and Naomichi Ueda takes one touch too many.  Tosu defend resolutely, both sets of supporters keep singing until the very end. 

The loss leaves Kashima in third, the victory proving not quite enough to keep Sagan fourth as Kashiwa Reysol net twice to overhaul the Kyushu club on goals scored.  Defeats for both the challengers means the title goes to Gamba Osaka, who recovered from relegation two seasons ago and a 14-point deficit before the mid-season break at the start of the World Cup.  "Absorbingly unpredictable," was how Ben Mabley summed the season up, though with the J.League set to revert to the failed two-stage format, both Japanese football and its most successful club side could be facing more challenging times ahead.

Admission:  2,500 yen (£13.50)
Date:  Saturday December 6th 2014

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