Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ground 260: Komazawa Football Field, Tamagawa

If you've ever wondered what British football terraces were like, try riding a Tokyo train between the hours of 7.30 and 9am.  I start my journey to work on the outskirts of Yokohama, a city of three million people, and end in Shibuya, a station used by roughly the same number of passengers every single weekday.  TV screens loop adverts for Nikon cameras, bank products and non-alcoholic beer.  There's the melodic roar of station announcements ("Mamonaku san-ban-sen ni Shibuya-yuki ga mairimas"), the thrill of finding yourself in an empty inch of space, the black-suited crowd swaying into each other between stops and surging forward the moment the doors ping open.

Jiyugaoka Station is the worst of them all, a place where no-one alights and rank after rank of salarymen push and drag themselves aboard.  Last week I watched with wry amusement a bloke in a Chelsea scarf shove his way through the doors, an office worker simultaneously getting his legs in a tangle and falling to the platform, grimacing silently before stoically hobbling away.  Today it's where I get off, hurrying down a pair of escalators, hurtling across a bridge and bounding through a tunnel in my haste to make a change of trains for the riverside playing fields of Komazawa University, alma mater of several J-League players and the coach of Vietnam's national team.  A week since experiencing the semi-rarefied heights of the Japanese third tier, I'm back among the obscurer corners of the capital city's football scene, taking in the second division of the amateur Tokyo Soccer League, a competition where kick off times range right across the weekend from 9am on Saturday mornings to after dark on Sunday nights, admission charges are unheard of and the handful of spectators are usually relatives, substitutes or people hanging around to use the pitch.

Nominally, the home side are Tokyo Bay FC, celebrating a tenth birthday with 300 players and a renewed focus "on synergy creation", their blue and grey kits carefully chosen to reflect "water, downtown buildings and the transportation network" of a city centre base in Shinagawa.  Their opponents are GIOCO Setagaya,  ambitious suburban cognoscenti who've subtitled their sparse website 'The J-League Team' five promotions too soon.  I arrive just after kick off, having squandered the time saved in the station by getting lost in a newly opened shopping plaza.  "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I politely ask a pair of old ladies, who shake heads and wave hands in vigorous unison before realising I'm still talking in a form of Japanese.  I'm bowed through the gates by a uniformed guard as Setagaya get the game underway; the team staff recline on park benches, the spectators make do with a kerb along the touchline and the rectangle of grass inside a shot put net.

Ten minutes in, the away side literally stroll into a lead when the Tokyo Bay goalkeeper mistimes a rush off his line, a forward passing the ball through his legs before a second taps in to the unguarded net.  "Woooah," the spectators purr appreciatively as the scorer jogs back to halfway.  It's soon apparent that Bay are hopelessly outclassed, their midfielders scurrying about to regain possession before wastefully punting the ball forward like mortar shells into no man's land.  Setagaya help out by playing everything down the left, the home defence clinging to the centre with all the grim desperation of a New Labour MP.  When half-time comes, they retreat exhausted to the shade under a classroom block, the coach's instructions echoing in angry bursts across the pitch.  Setagaya stand by the touchline, their trainer gently remonstrating while spectators stretch, lace up boots or slink off to the adjoining rugby pitch for a kickaround.

The second half is disappointingly flat, Bay making an almighty hash of two free kicks before Setagaya score again from a corner and the crowd start pedalling home.  Pass completion and urgency slump to a level somewhere between an end-of-season England friendly and Newcastle United from late-January to May; GIOCO smash the rusting crossbar, score a third and then stroke the ball around the centre circle while the tiring Bay players toil in the heat of an April afternoon.  Their coach stands up, leaves his tactics board by a corner flag and stares across the river.  "We fought well," the match report concludes, "but hope for better luck next weekend."

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday April 26th 2015

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Ground 259: Sagamihara Gion Stadium

The last time I found myself in Sagamihara was by mistake.  An afternoon's hike turned into an eight-hour misadventure, only ending when, dusk and spirits falling, I finally caught sight of the ramshackle Sagamiko Station, the two pages I'd cunningly photocopied from a dog-eared guidebook having proved of surprisingly little use along the way. I didn't know it at the time, but the city's football team had just been established by a far less accidental tourist.  Shigeyoshi Mochizuki,  retired from a playing career that encompassed 15 international appearances and the winning goal in the 2000 Asian Cup, was visiting friends when he called into a shop near Sagamihara Station.  The conversation turned to football. "I'd like to be a coach one day," the ex-Nagoya midfielder admitted. "Why not here?" asked the shopowner.

When I passed through the city in 2008, Mochizuki's  newborn club was only nine months old but speedily ascending the Japanese football pyramid.  By 2011 SC Sagamihara had shot through the Kanagawa Prefectural Leagues with three successive promotions and had already been granted associate membership of the J.League; three years later they lined up with 11 other clubs as founder members of J3. "A very proud day," Mochizuki said.

The Tama Derby pitched third against fourth, promotion favourites against play-off hopefuls, Machida Zelvia, formerly coached by Osvaldo Ardiles, travelling to play a team captained by the veteran Naohiro Takahara, once of Boca Juniors and the Bundesliga.  Only a month into the season, it was already being branded "a decisive battle".  Both sides had won three, drawn one and disappointed in a limp defeat at home.  "Sagamihara are better than when we beat them three times last season," warned Machida's Koji Suzuki. "We know they'll be up for the game."

The nearest station to the Gion Stadium is Harataima, two narrow platforms with a mountain view and an honesty box for your tickets upstairs.  I pass two shrivelled rivers, a convenience store and then disappear among the ginko and greening cherry blossom of Sagamihara Municipal Park, the sickly smell of odure from a hundred allotment plots intermingling with the muffled din of stadium announcements and fat drops of rain.   Skirting the longer queues for taco rice, octopus balls and pita hamburgers, I pay just over £3 for roast chicken with paella and just under twice as much for a ticket in the Sagamihara end, which turns out to be a grass bank behind a goal, three rows of advertising hoardings and a running track.  To my right, the home crowd start with Human League, switching to Pigbag as a Machida attack is snuffed out, the ball travels down the pitch and is flighted into the net by Taira Inoue, one of the club's cornucopia of close-season signings from J2 strugglers FC Gifu. There's a moment of utter silence, then thundersticks (doled out for free along a four-page programme) bang, green and white shirts bob on the grass and the theme from Popeye strikes up as  the tannoy belatedly comes to life.  Machida start over, families sit on picnic mats slurping their way through cup noodles and crunching on food they brought in from outside.  Sagamihara's ultras stand behind Gate 12 flags, chanting towards a larger mass of blue at the opposite end of the pitch. 'Pasion Azul' reads a Zelvia banner, the home side responding with 'Forza SC Sagamihara' and 'All Try Our Best'.

Machida bustle and start bossing midfield; the greens sit and wait, Mobi Fehr, a US youth international once of Portland Timbers and FC Basel U21s, patiently mopping up and Takahara heading clear when Zelvia get closer to goal. Umbrellas go up then back down, children roll across the banking, the ultras twirl their scarves and bounce out No Limit.  A Machida player bangs a shot off an advertising board, the resulting thud his side's most memorable contribution to the opening half hour.  Six minutes before the break Takahara twists and slots a second into the net over the goalkeeper's hand.  There's a scream, Gate 12 pogo for a whole 30 seconds and when they stop the Machida supporters pick up with their chants all the way to the referee's whistle to close the half.

Before three minutes are gone in the second period we've had a save at either end and a Zelvia goal, Satoshi Kukino turning in a rebound off the keeper.  And then, for 40 or so minutes, everything settles back down, bored children racing about while their parents polish off picnics or sit reading books.  The attendance is counted at 4,762, the Gate 12 fans dance to Go West and Sagamihara, harassed, pushed back and reliant on the wiles of Takahara to keep possession upfield, cling to their advantage as the scoreboard shows first four then five minutes of time added on.  The final whistle, when it eventually comes, is met with a roar, the caw, caw, cawing of the crows overhead an early season mockery of Machida's promotion campaign.  Sagamihara go second, a Zelvia fan in a West Ham United t-shirt shaking his head with incomprehension as he starts back out on the way to Harataima.

Admission: 1,000 yen (about £6)
Date:  Sunday 19th April 2015