A week after my day out with the bear-headed, megaphone-wielding wildlings at Tochigi Uva FC I'm back in the more familiar environs of the Japanese capital city, strolling about a shaded, 18th century pleasure garden named after the six classifications of ancient Waka poetry. By sheer coincidence, there's a discount booze shop on the corner by the entrance and a free of charge Tokyo Soccer League Division One game taking place one stop away on the train. What were the chances, eh?
Armed with a bottle of Spitfire and two cans of Okinawa's finest brew, I get to the ground as a game is finishing up, a forward in an England 2002 World Cup top shanking horribly wide of the goal. Watching from behind a wire fence are the starting eleven for Criacao, a team formed by workers at the Shinjuku Sports Promotion Council whose lofty ambitions culminate in J1 membership by 2020 and winning the Club World Cup in 2025. For the moment, however, they're stuck in the seventh-tier and play home games wherever they can find a pitch. "I spent all my time on Google
Maps trying to find a ground in Tokyo we could use permanently,"
club official Kazuhiro Maruyama told Tokyo Issue last year, "but right now we have to train in Saitama Prefecture and play at different grounds most weeks." Today they've borrowed an artificial pitch from Mitsubishi Yowa, a company-funded club nationally famous for producing players such as ex-Yokohama Marinos and Laos manager Kokichi Kimura and Junya Tanaka, latterly of Kashiwa Reysol, Sporting Lisbon and the Japan national team. After narrowly missing promotion to the
second division of the regional Kanto League - finishing first in the
championship but third in the post-season knock-out tournament in which
only the two finalists go up - Criacao have added two former J.League players of their own,
including Tatsuya Okamoto, who scored five times for J3's Gainare
Tottori in 2014. "We were too rigid tactically last year," explained
footballing director Kenta Kato. "We need to press harder, get the ball back faster
and then go straight for the goal."
As Kato barks out last-minute instructions, I find a seat on a metal bench alongside two women in straw hats, a bored-looking toddler and a couple munching their way through a whole carrier bag's worth of sandwiches. Criacao take to the field in Fiorentina colours, their opponents, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, in all-white. The police are on the back foot almost from the off, hacking one shot clear before sweeping another off the line, but 40 minutes and two drink breaks in their number 5 arrives unannounced in the Criacao penalty area and nods over the stunned goalkeeper for the game's opening goal. A minute later, the visitors catch the Criacao defence flat-footed again, a forward pass finding number 7 in enough space to gather, look up and slot in at the opposite post. "Wow!" says sandwich man, spluttering crumbs. "Amazing!" Stung, Criacao drill the ball back upfield, scoring once and twice almost levelling the scores. By now, even the toddler is engrossed in what's going on.
The break, inevitably, comes at the very worst time, Criacao's momentum so badly disrupted I begin to suspect their half-time instructions were issued by a combination of John Carver and Stuart Pearce. They eventually forge a pair of half-chances, missing the target with both, before pulling level with a shot that clanks in off the post. The straw hats scream, two kids in matching Messi tops race along the touchline, and a Yokohama Marinos youth team momentarily break off from their warm-up to see what the fuss is about. But the thin white line holds, the Met almost taking the points with a shot that clips the top of the crossbar as time ticks away and the fourth-placed title favourites can only draw for the second weekend in a row. "Beyond Tokyo. Winning or nothing" reads a banner tied to the fence. The world's elite club sides can rest easy for a while to come yet.
Date: Sunday May 17th