When Ronaldo scored the goals which won Brazil's fifth World Cup I was seated on a plastic stool in a Seoul restaurant, drinking beer every bit as bad as Oliver Kahn's deadlock-breaking fumble. "It was my only mistake in seven games," the German keeper bemoaned, " but it was 10 times worse than any mistake I've ever made." As the final whistle resounded through Yokohama's vast concrete bowl, the luckless Kahn slouched disconsolately against his goalpost, Kaka cavorted in an 'I Belong to Jesus' t-shirt, and Ronaldo, wrote The Guardian, "in tears of joy this time, was chased around the pitch by at least 36,000 photographers". I stayed long enough to see Cafu propel the trophy towards millions of paper cranes, then swilled back the remainder of my watery lager and headed home, a day of work beckoning and my first World Cup already beginning to fade into memory.
Two years later I was in the stadium myself, watching Yokohama F.Marinos, on their way to a third and, to date, final J.League championship, defeat JEF United 2-1 in front of an impressively clamorous, multi-coloured and rowdy 20,516 crowd. The home side had two South Koreans in their starting eleven; JEF's solitary goalscorer was a young Yuki Abe, later of Leicester City and 53 caps for the Japan national team. I never returned, though on a bitterly cold evening in December 2011 68,000 did turn out to see Xavi, Messia and Fabregas dismantle Neymar's Santos ("Our all-time peak performance," Pep Guardiola would later judge) while, just off the shinkansen from Nagoya, I sat by my cases in an airport hotel room, the TV on in the background for what I thought at the time would be my very last night in Japan.
Never say never: little did I realise that the Marinos would one day be my neighbourhood team, and the Nissan Stadium just a brisk fifteen-minute walk from my flat. Which is how I find myself back there again, watching Esperanza SC take on Sagami Osawa on an auxiliary pitch in the seventh-tier Kanagawa Prefectural League Division One. There's no Messi, Cafu or Ronaldo on show, but Esperanza have other links to South America: Jorge Ortega, the club's founder and head coach, played for Banfield, Quilmes and Deportivo Espanyol, won a single cap with Carlos Bilardo's Argentina, and worked as academy director at Boca Juniors before relocating permanently to Japan. In 2011, Ortega added a senior men's team to his Esperanza youth programme; last year they won 23 times, lost just once and sent two players up to J3 sides, Agustin Ortega signing for Blaublitz Akita and Nobuhisa Furukawa, moulded by five years of Esperanza coaching and time spent with Brescia and Uruguay's Club Atletico Atenas, moving to Kataller Toyama.
The game begins with the sun dipping behind the expanse of the stadium and a constant stream of joggers doing slow laps of the park. There are a couple of dozen spectators looking down from a footbridge, two men wading unhappily through waist-high grass as they search for stray balls, ten on the bank above with camping seats for chairs, and fifty or sixty more either warming up by the sidelines or watching from the netting that encircles the pitch. Osawa have played three, lost three and conceded twelve; Esperanza, in Boca colours, with yellow trim and crosses on their chest, flick on exhibition setting, scoring twice before we've played 20 minutes. Osawa are neat, tidy and as toothless as centenarians, the closest they come to converting an attack a shot that's still rising as it smacks the netting two metres above goal, their coach forlornly imploring the shooter to "Finish, finish." They do better at hitting ankles, a series of trips drawing elongated howls from the home bench and a yellow card for an Osawa midfielder, who approaches the referee and bows contritely in response.
Esperanza cruise through the second period, effortlessly swatting away the occasional danger right up until the moment they let a cross go unchallenged all the way across the area, off an Osawa foot and into the corner of their goal with 70 minutes gone. The flow changes utterly, the away side clanking the crossbar before flicking home to level the score. Instructions come more frequently, barked across the pitch in Spanish and Japanese. Esperanza push with increasing desperation, Osawa, just as furiously, block, hack and scramble away. With a minute left, a free kick's blocked by a leaping head, but before the defence can react the ball's booted joyfully into the net, the blue and yellows racing for the corner flag as the white shirts hang their heads. As Oliver Kahn could have told them, football is the cruellest of games.
Date: Sunday May 24th 2015