Monday, 22 June 2015

Ground 267: NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium, Yokohama FC

The full account of how I ended up adopting Omiya Ardija as my Japanese team is a long and complicated story involving a serious miscalculation of Greater Tokyo's demographics, David Mitchell's number9dream and an Arsenal-supporting English teacher from Limerick. Essentially, it all boils down to this: as a Newcastle United fan for as long as I can remember – thanks a bunch, Dad – I'm duty-bound to root for underachieving, wildly unsuccessful sides whenever I come across them.  In other words, I really didn't have a choice.

When I first came to Japan in September 2004, the closest alternatives to Ardija were the country's most successful and best supported club sides; my arrival, miraculously, coincided with tiny Omiya winning each of their last eleven league games.  On the final afternoon of the season,  the club's star Brazilian striker danced a samba with a corner flag while a raucous, orange-clad crowd acclaimed their team's first ever promotion to J1. Later that night, I drunkenly shimmied up a lamppost opposite Omiya Station and liberated a flag, a cluster of fans and a shopkeeper cheering me on from the pavement below.  It's the closest I'm ever likely to come to feeling like a gloryhunter.

It didn't last, of course. The Brazilian departed for Kofu, Gamba Osaka and Dubai, while the Squirrels morphed into a kind of Japanese Sunderland: hopelessly inept for nine-tenths of the season before somehow acquiring just enough points to do the same again next year.  When they did briefly threaten the top of the table in 2013, the club responded by dispensing with their Slovenian trainer, losing 17 times in 22 matches and getting relegated the following year.

"Before the season started I thought we'd go straight back up as champions, but after the first few weeks it was beginning to look like a disaster," Omiya season ticket holder Steve Barme says.   Beaten away at Cerezo Osaka and JEF United before the new campaign was a month old, the Squirrels haven't lost in eleven games since, are four points ahead of Jay Bothroyd's Jubilo Iwata at the top of J2 and are up against a midtable outfit who've given seven games to a forward born the year after England won the World Cup.  "1-0 Ardija," Steve thinks, "but ask me again right before the end."

With the ground completely uncovered,  I'm relieved when the rain stops just as I arrive.  Unfortunately, ticket sales for away fans come to a halt at exactly the same time.  "Sold out," the woman in the ticket hut apologises in halting English.  Instead, I get a seat at the opposite side of the ground, a paper fan, two flyers, a leaflet for a performance idol contest and four glossy pages of adverts with matchday programme printed on the front.  Across the pitch, the 2,000 or so Omiya fans twirl towel scarves and rattle off the refrain to Boney M's Rasputin and "We Are Orange! We Are Ardija!"  After five minutes of muttering and an unsuccessful attempt to dodge through a rope barrier, I finally realise that there's nothing to stop me walking around the outside of the stand and straight into the away end, where Steve's reserved two seats with the aid of a backpack and umbrella.

Events are more straightforward on the other side of the hoardings, Ardija taking the lead midway through the half when Shigeru Yokotani strolls forward and plants a rising, right-footed shot into the uppermost corner of Yuta Minami's net.  Ten minutes into the second period, Dragan Mrda, capped 14 times by Serbia and formerly of Red Star Belgrade, Sion and Lierse, passes a second past Minami's dive, and three minutes after that Akihiro Ienaga takes one touch to move the ball onto his left foot and another to piledriver it into the net.  The away end bounces in perfect synchronisation, the singing led by a fan in matching orange flip flops and yoga pants; blue and white flags wave limply behind the opposing goal.

Omiya coast through the remainder of the game against tiring and disheartened opponents, Ienaga - talented enough to play 25 times for Mallorca yet lacking the mobility to make it at Plymouth Argyle - flicking and spraying the ball about with the languid air and thinly-disguised disdain of a movie mogul casting a roomful of blondes. "Like a cup tie," thinks Jon Steele afterwards. "Yokohama looked good until the second goal but after that they had nothing left to give." We leave the ground to news that Jubilo - two up in the first half - have gone down by a single goal at home to Gifu.  With almost half the season gone, Ardija are now seven points clear at the top.

Admission:  2,600 yen (around £14)
Date:  Sunday 21st June 2015

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Ground 266: Seagull Park, Kanagawa Prefectural Football Park

I'd woken up late and groggy, with the temperature already in the high-20s and a head that felt like Jon Snow's stomach after the closing scenes of Game of Thrones.  The online news was all about Barcelona, who'd eased to another Champions League while I was otherwise engaged sleeping off my Saturday night.  "Exhilarating" the Guardian's man in Berlin gushed.  "This is the team that takes football to its highest levels."

As a long-time connoisseur of mediocrity in the world's favourite game, my choice of Sunday afternoon entertainment was always likely to be several notches lower on the quality scale.  Still, it's not everyday you get the chance to see the second round of games in the prefectural qualifying tournament for the 22nd All-Japan Club Football Championships, which is a bit like the FA Vase could be if it was crammed into eight weekends, enjoyed virtually zero coverage and had its semi final played in front of a handful of people on an Olympic hockey field.

The Kanagawa competition gathers together heavyweights like Enoshima Flipper, FC Socios and ninth-tier Azul Yuri, a team with no online presence besides the listings of their fixtures of the site of the Kanagawa Prefectural League.  Their opponents were FC Atsugi, one division higher and hailing from a town whose decidedly minor claim to fame is as the birthplace of Teruyuki Moniwa, a second-half substitute in a 2006 World Cup game when the first choice defender got cramp in both thighs.  The two sides met on a pitch that had been funded as a legacy project of the 2002 tournament and is now between a petrol station and an overhead railway line, limbering up to sweeping views of electricity pylons and the ripe smell of manure from a vegetable plot that backed on to a graveyard.

There were already a few dozen spectators perched uncomfortably on concrete blocks, facing a line of diggers and a convenience store stripped of almost all its edible goods.  A couple pushed a dog around the perimeter in a custom-built pram and three women sheltered under parasols despite the absence of either direct sunlight or rain.  Some felled tree trunks and the clubhouse fire escape completed the seating, making the end effect something like Thornaby without the charm or rustic appeal.  Azul's coach was dressed for success in a salaryman's suit, his tactics scrawled on a notebook and a dozen Pocari Sweat bottles dotted around his feet.  His opposite number prowled the touchline in a tank top, growling instructions at his team.  Shortly after kick-off half the crowd departed with transparent bags and surgical masks to clear away leaves behind the goal, where the next two teams to use the pitch were attempting their passing drills beside a cabbage patch and an extra set of posts.  It took another ten minutes before Azul were able to field an entire team of their own, their eleventh man bowing apologetically while hurriedly swapping a pair of white Crocs for bright yellow boots.

Even without their tardy midfielder, Azul had started the better of the two teams.  Then, under less pressure than a FIFA Exco member in the mid-1990s, their goalkeeper flung the ball ten metres wide of its intended recipient and straight at the feet of a lurking Atsugi forward.  The striker dallied, but was then helpfully tripped while attempting to go sideways across goal.  Less than a minute after the penalty was lashed past him, the keeper unwisely attempted to make amends by hurtling off his line, watching as the ball was lobbed over his head and straight down the middle of the unguarded net. The remainder of the half was played out in an atmosphere of polite embarrassment, the Azul manager crossing out several lines of his notebook before dropping it on the floor. 

Azul surprised even themselves when they scored early in the second half,  then staggeringly levelled with a minute left to play and Atsugi lingering on the ball perilously close to their own goal.  There was no messing about with extra time while the next teams waited and it cost £2 an hour to park your car, so it was straight into a penalty shoot-out at the vending machine end.  The first four were placed into corners, the fifth and sixth straight into the goalkeepers' hands.  Atsugi scored their next two, Azul could only clank the post.  When the winning penalty hit the net, there were a few seconds of awkward silence before everyone lined up, bowed towards the clubhouse and then walked off the pitch. 

Admission:  Free
Date:   Sunday June 7th

Friday, 5 June 2015

Ground 264 & 265: Higashi-Totsuka Football Park and Marinos Town

There are a lot of things I like about non-league football in Japan: it's almost always free to watch, the universally relaxed approach to alcohol means you can turn up with your own bag of booze, kick-off times are staggered from Saturday morning to Sunday night, the season continues all the way through the summer, and the venues themselves, while rarely little more than artificial pitches with permanent seating for a few dozen people, are often on the doorsteps of much more interesting places. If monorails built for World Expos don't do it for you, there are  bayside parks and former J.League grounds1964 Olympic hockey fields or a stadium complex built to host the final of the 2002 World Cup. 

Onze's teamtalk
Today's double header promises to be equally memorable, beginning on the fringes of the grandiloquently titled Yokohama Country Club, a 20-minute walk from the nearest railway station via the side of a toll road, a concrete underpass and a long row of Sunday golfers driving balls against a 50-metre-high net. The Higashi-Totsuka pitches were used by J1's Yokohama F. Marinos until the mid-2000s when they relocated to purpose-built facilities in the city centre and left their old training ground to Yokohama FC.  Still operated by the city's second-tier team,  the football park is nowadays used by junior players, women's sides and the local Prefectural Leagues, with back-to-back games in the third-flight of the Tokyo Soccer League - six divisions below the professionals but clearly just about high enough for players to feel unembarrassed about turning out in pink, turquoise and day-glo orange boots - scheduled for the hottest part of the day.  I catch the last 20 minutes and no fewer than four of Hachioji's eight goals against the toiling mobile phone workers from au.EAST.  The next two teams, Griffin Tokyo and Onze FC, are sensibly limbering up behind the net that doesn't have the ball smacked repeatedly into the back of it, and the only other spectators are au's defence.  Hachioji's grateful substitutes loll about in the heat on folding benches, which appear to be the only facilities besides three vending machines, a dozen extra goalposts and an abandoned terrace with grass steps, half its roof left and a bicycle lock on the gate.

 Griffin attack

Eight-goal tonkings are nothing out of the ordinary among the 72 teams that make up Tokyo's third flight.  In another of the division's six groups, Tokyo23 were running 14 past Corazon Matador (Ole!) while Griffin - "Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships" their website promises - had smashed the soporific Panda FC 9-0 just a fortnight previously.  Today is a much cagier affair, with the temperature nudging 31 degrees and the pace unsurprisingly lagging somewhere between languid and Moussa Sissoko once the transfer window closes.  The best chance of the first half drops at the feet of Onze's number 10, who misses a one-on-one, the frame of the goal and the practice wall behind it, slicing instead straight into a clump of trees.  Misfires aside, the whole thing is a fairly surreal experience for someone more accustomed to amateur football in the north-east of England: burly defenders say "Please excuse me" after committing minor fouls, the linesmen spend the break pretending their flags are baseball bats, and a player subbed at half-time strolls back to the touchline twenty minutes later with a plastic straw and a latte in a can.  Nothing much happens until the final minute, when Griffin find their range with two goals in two attacks.  When it's all over the teams walk to the opposing benches, form a line and respectfully dip their heads.

Marinos Town

The first game done, I leave the tinny thwack of golf balls behind and hurriely retrace my steps to central Yokohama, where FC Ashai and Minato Mirai are contesting a Kanagawa Prefectural League Division Two game at Marinos Town, an expensively-assembled five-pitch facility complete with 2,000-seater stand, Italian restaurant, club shop and 24-hour convenience store.  The Marinos announced their departure from Higashi-Totsuka in the year they completed their second successive J.League title and third championship win in just nine years. One decade and a single runners-up place later, the club - now 20% owned by the Manchester City Group, who promise "a collaborative and integrated approach to the football, marketing, media and commercial development of all the clubs in the City family" - are upping sticks again, this time to a cheaper training ground next to the Nissan International Stadium.  The sky-high lease got the underperforming Marinos one of the world's most visually impressive training facilities, overlooked by the 60 billion yen Fuji Xerox building and the futuristic high-rises of Minato Mirai.  A skywalk whisks me out of an underground shopping centre, across upscale department stores and through the display of 'Zero Emission Autonomous Vehicles' at Nissan's global headquarters, before I'm deposited in a car park where the adult players are milling around with canned coffee, Milky Ways and the closing minutes of a Marinos youth game.

 The Fuji Xerox Building

The sky's turning pink by the time the evening fixture begins, the crowd - or, more accurately, me, the substitutes and  a teenage couple who have turned up because they know one of the Asahi players - gathered on a twin-tiered metal bench along the convenience store touchline.  Both teams clank the crossbar, but there's more industry than guile and little to threaten either goal.  Instead, the biggest source of entertainment is a winger with the workrate and volubility of a young Craig Bellamy, whose high-pitched shrieks of frustration peak just seconds before Minato Mirai fluke the first of a what turns into a highly improbable three goals in the final 10 minutes.  The teenagers take off shortly after the second, leaving just me and a man returning from a supermarket who's found a vantage point by the fence. Another hugely entertaining Sunday evening; Greater Tokyo's other 35,682,458 inhabitants don't know what they're missing.

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday May 31st 2015