Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ground 263: Shin Yokohama Park

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. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday May 24th 2015

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Ground 262: Mitsubishi Yowakai Sugamo Ground, Tokyo

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.

Admission: Free
Date: Sunday May 17th

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Ground 261: Tochigi City Sports Park Stadium

I arrived in Tochigi in the autumn of 2004, swapping a university city an hour away from Prague for a railway halt on the very northernmost edge of the Greater Tokyo Area.  I lived in a shoebox-sized flat with no internet connection, a phone restricted to incoming calls only, and a single window with a view of two rice paddies, a convenience store and the road out of town.  It was a ninety-minute train ride to anything that didn't resemble a Wednesday night out in Sunderland; the surrounding prefecture couldn't even muster as much as a  J.League team to support.  The closest options, I very quickly discovered, were Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds - respectively the country's most successful and biggest teams - and Omiya Ardija,  an insignificant second division outfit which had never before played in the Japanese top-flight.  For a Newcastle United supporter, there was only one choice. My contract done, I beat a fast retreat to the brighter lights of Northern Bohemia; the next time I saw Ardija play, they were losing in J1 and I was living twenty minutes west of Shinjuku, the busiest railway station in the world.

Eleven years on, I'm back in provincial Japan to see the prefecture's second team, Tochigi Uva FC.  Founded soon after WWII by workers at a local Hitachi plant, the club altered its name in 2002, was promoted to the country's highest amateur division eight years later, and is now next to last in the JFL table with a single win and nine defeats, including a 4-0 spanking its last time out.  The only side keeping Uva off the bottom is, unpromisingly enough, today's opponents, Fagiano Okayama Reserves, who have acquired just one point and a measly four goals from their opening ten matches."The quality might not be up to much," says Mike Innes, Ardija fan and long-time watcher of Japan's lower leagues, when we meet on the platform at Shin-Tochigi.  Along with Steve Barme, fellow expat Omiya supporter and our designated interpreter for the day, we navigate from station to stadium by iPad screenshot, passing a swimming pool, a petting zoo which has a pair of goats on a blue tarpaulin and a ferret in a pink cage, and a man who says "No money" as he presses three tickets into our hands.

The free entry is part of Uva's off-the-field push for the J.League, resulting in a bigger than expected crowd of almost 1,300.  The ground comes in standard single-stand-with-mini-roof-and-grass-banking design, with a fountain on one side and forested hills on the other.  The seats are three-quarters full, the grass is more sparsely populated.  The Uva ultras are behind one goal, waving flags and setting up drums which they bang on incessantly.   The Fagiano four stand by a corner flag, partially hidden by a set of stairs.  "God almighty!" Mike exclaims when the first chants of "Fagiano!" blow faintly across the running track. "I thought that was an echo." "The standard's pretty terrible," says Steve - who clearly hasn't yet experienced the lower reaches of the Tokyo Soccer League -  as the ball arcs lazily overhead and the referee's whistle blows for yet another offside.  The closest we get to goalmouth action is a corner which is blown by the wind first towards and then about ten metres past the far post, missing every single player on the way.  We're busy speculating on the likelihood of a miskicked set-piece eventually breaking the deadlock when a Fagiano backpass is poked against a post and bounces tamely into the net.  "One of the shittest goals you'll ever see," says Mike, whose years of supporting Altrincham and Ardija make him something of an expert in the field.

Half-time brings a queue at a vending machine, where I'm joined by an Uva fan with a megaphone, flag and Polar bear's head.  Intrigued, we follow him into back to the rest of the ultras, who break off from a group huddle to say "Hi", "Konnichi-wa" and "Welcome to Tochigi."  "The only thing that could improve this welcome," thinks Mike, "is if they give us free beer."  Instead, we make do with a rip-roaring start to the second half, the home side having a goalbound effort headed off the line before Toshihiko Uchiyama smashes in a second after his first attempt bounces back from a teammate's chest.  The Uva support keeps up a clamour of drumming, which crescendoes with the polar bear spreadeagled on the grass while screaming incoherently through his megaphone.  Another fan waves a towel scarf.  A third, in blue curly wig, shakes everybody by the hand.  "Come again next game," says one of the ultras, while a woman holds aloft a photo of her favourite player and screeches at the pitch.   A strange afternoon, but by far the most fun I've ever had in Tochigi.  "Fancy coming again?" asks Steve as we polish off mini-steaks in a restaurant which mysteriously empties almost as soon as we walk through the door.  It takes me three hours and four trains to get back to Yokohama, sunburnt, tired and ready for more.

Admission:  "No money"
Date:  Sunday May 10th 2015

In case you're wondering, the Uva in Tochigi comes from the Italian word for grapes, though Mike's father-in-law assures him that Tochigi's grapes are actually "shit, too sweet and with no depth of flavour."  The polar bear head, disappointingly, is tied in to a sponsorship deal with an air conditioning company (with thanks on that one to Steve's superior Japanese language skills).