Monday, 20 July 2015

Ground 271: Machida Municipal Athletics Stadium

One of a select band of football teams named after items of foliage, Machida Zelvia were also among the slightly larger cohort of clubs to have been unsuccessfully helmed by Osvaldo César Ardiles.   "I accepted to manage this team with great enthusiasm," the jovial Argentinean recalled shortly after embarking on a fourth coaching job in Japan. "What I am missing right now is results."  Previously, Ardiles' coaching misadventures had been variously attributed to a lack of transfer finances, an over-reliance on youth and a peculiar tactical mindset in which it seemed no longer important to stop the opposition scoring goals.  At Zelvia, it was the rules of football itself that turned against him: "If you looked exclusively at what happened between the two 18-yard boxes, there wasn't a better team in the division,"  reckoned the club's Scottish midfielder Colin Marshall. "It's just a shame we couldn't put the ball in the net - or stop it going in ours."

Machida had evolved from a successful junior football school which produced more than three dozen J.League players.  Propelled through prefectural and regional leagues by the tireless efforts of a primary school teacher, the club was "grassroots in the truest sense of the term (with) no financial backing from major companies or its own clubhouse or training ground".  In 2011, just 22 years after the senior team played its first ever game in the Tokyo League,  Zelvia sealed a fairytale promotion to J2 with a third-place finish in the semi-professional JFL.  "Our team is the Cinderella of the division," the recently hired Ardiles told the Japan Times. "It is going to be very difficult in J2 and it is also going to be a wonderful adventure".  Nine months later, the season closed with Zelvia three points adrift at the bottom of the table, on a negative goal difference of 33 and with Ardiles' replacement already in charge of the team.

After a bumpy single-season stay in the JFL - Machida haemorrhaged star players after relegation and could only finish fourth -  the blues were back among the professionals in the newly-founded J3 division, their win column swelling like Hatem Ben Arfa's waistband during a goal-laden sequence which put them seven points clear of the competition with two thirds of the season gone.  The wheels came off with four defeats in their next six fixtures, a late rally failing by one point to grab second-place, and a spot in the promotion play-off, from Nagano Parceiro.

With a strengthened squad and the core of last season`s starting eleven still in place, expectations could hardly have been higher when the season began with the visit of Nagano in mid-March.  "I see no reason to think that Zelvia won`t finally get to raise that elusive third division trophy in November," wrote the Fortress Nozuta blog. But two losses in their opening six games - the second a 2-1 defeat by local rivals Sagamihara SC - had set the blues adrift of surprise package Renofa Yamaguchi, who remained nine points clear at the top with over half the season played.  Second-placed Zelvia's latest opponents, the oddly-assembled J.League U22 Selection, had made it through a turbulent debut season in which they used over 80 players, played every game away, and finished tenth of twelve clubs.  Built around a roster of more than 200 Rio Olympic hopefuls plucked from the reserve teams of every J1 and J2 side, the U22's are completely unrecognisable from one appearance to the next, their squad announced two days before each matchday and given just a single training session to try and achieve a coherent team. Machida had already put six goals past them in the fixture following the upset at Sagamihara. "A pointless disaster," was how one J3 watcher summed the team up. "A mess," agreed J-Talk Podcast's Ben Maxwell. "The perception is that the J.League is making it all up as they go along."

Zelvia's incoveniently-sited municipal stadium is a 20-minute shuttle bus ride or near hour-long yomp from the closest railway stop.  Fortunately, there was the usual panoply of curry outlets and stalls selling cold beer, fried octopus balls and taco rice in the carpark outside. A few dozen tennis players smacked forehands off a wall, speakers were blaring out Lenny Kravitz and Primal Scream, and huge banners draped over the concrete urged 'Enjoy Football' and 'One For All, All for One'.  Once through the ticket gate, the ground was dominated by a grandstand that would look more at home along the finishing stretch of a racetrack, with hulking floodlights in each corner and a three-quarter oval of uncovered stands, two of which were liberally dotted with fans in blue shirts.   The home supporters' section opened up with a slowed down Love Me Tender before the whole ground started twirling scarves overhead as the two teams took to the pitch.

The opening minutes were disrupted by an injury to Ryuto Otake, the home fans entertaining themselves with a song to the tune of Cliff Richard's Congratulations, accompanied by mass bouncing, three drums and a trumpet solo.  Machida hit the bar with a free kick after a second appearance by the stretcher, but the most exciting moments of the half came within 30 seconds of the closing whistle, the home side up-and-undering a header clear of their goalline before a counter attack ended with a defender nicking the ball off Akira Toshima's toes.

The second half had barely started when Takahumi Suzuki was afforded space to cut inside and wallop a rising, left-footed shot past the startled U22 goalkeeper.  The visitors responded with a header off the post, the warning passing unheeded as Nagoya's Koki Sugimori hooked in the equaliser from the very next cross.  The crowd, momentarily quietened, were soon roused back into song, Suzuki quickly stabbing in his second of the night and then completing his hat-trick after a smart turn and shot with just a minute left on the scoreboard clock.  It was enough for both Machida's 12th win of the season and a new record of 14 matches since their last defeat, shortening the gap to Renofa - still to play their 20th game - to six points and 19 goals.

Admission: 1,700 yen (£1 = 192 yen)
Date: Sunday July 19th 2015
Highlights of the game are here.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Ground 270: Shonan BMW Stadium, Hiratsuka

Newcastle United and Brazilians have rarely mixed well.  Moving from Lyon to St James` Park reduced the five-time title-winning captain Cacapa to lumbering catastrophe who was "slow to the point of immobility, cumbersome in the challenge and utterly bereft of any sense of position", his nightmarish spell at St James' effectively ended when he was dragged off 18 minutes and three goals in to a home defeat to Portsmouth.  Fumaca, somehow, was even worse, pitching up on Tyneside by the circuitous route of Catuense, Colchester United, Barnsley and Crystal Palace and displaying an inability to pass, head or control a football that was perfectly encapsulated in the five touches - each more panicked than the last - he took between failing to gather a pass from his own goalkeeper and conceding a throw-in during a woeful 37-minute non-appearance against West Ham United.  The Magpies' first Jogador do Brasil, Mirandinha, relocated from downtown Sao Paulo to the backstreets of Bedlington in 1987 and was, if only by comparison to his hapless compatriots, a genuine star, scoring 19 goals in 54 appearances before relegation, a comic reluctance to pass the ball and the arrival of Jim Smith as manager meant he was unceremoniously - "As far as I'm concerend he can rot on his pig farm," Smith famously raged - dumped on a free.  Four years, three countries and six clubs later he struck 12 goals in 18 games for Shonan Bellmare before tearing his knee ligaments during a heavy loss to Yokohama in August 1994.

Bellmare had been founded in Tochigi Prefecture around the same time that Newcastle had last managed a major trophy win.  Moved by their parent company to the coast at Hiratsuka, they picked up three national championships and two Emperor's Cups before Japanese football went professional in the early-1990s, success disappearing along with the club's corporate backer and their most saleable asset, Hidetoshi Nakata, who departed for Perugia shortly before relegation in 1999.  Shonan had spent just two seasons in J1 since, but last year's runaway second-tier title-winners ended this year's first-stage in the comfort of 10th position, only four goals behind Nagoya Grampus, last club of Gary Lineker and Japanese champions the year before I jinxed them by moving in around the corner.

Suitably clad in factor 30 suncream, I began my pre-match preparations on Chigasaki's Aloha Street, meandering past surfer hangouts and Hawaiian-themed cafes in the direction of the town's Southern Beach, a slightly dirtier version of Tynemouth's Longsands with hawks standing in for seagulls, designated smoking areas and signs showing evacuation routes should a tsunami ever strike.  Baseball practice began where the surfboards petered out, lines of children, in helmets and full uniform, waiting their turn to hit or catch the ball.  At the back of the sand, a tarmacked path, shielded from the main road, ran all the way to Hiratsuka, ending at a ramshackle golf driving range, a concrete bridge and a rusting factory straight out of Steinbeck.

It wasn't until the station that I began to pick up the football traffic, with signs for shuttle buses and a steady stream of red and pale green shirts.  Twenty minutes after that, I finally hit the lengthy row of food and beer stands at the entrance to the stadium, of Brutalist design and plonked in the middle of a park.  Grampus had travelled in numbers, filling the centre and one and three quarters of the sides at the scoreboard end goal, and maintaining a rolling din to the tune of La Marseillaise through the opening 15 minutes of the game.  The two ends traded chants that mostly seemed to begin with diphthongs and end in a proper noun.  Bellmare battered the post, Nagoya had the occasional moment of excitement breaking forward but were more efficient at the back, rebuffing everything Shonan launched their way until the 40th minute, when Shuhei Otsuki inched off his marker and headed a cross between Seigo Narazaki's leap and his right-hand post.

Grampus were back out first, the tannoy blaring increasingly inane adverts as a huge blue and green flag was shuffled overhead across the Shonan side of the ground.  Yoshizumi Ogawa headed wide with the goal gaping, the away fans responding with cries of amazement and a slowed-down version of Cecilia which carried on all the way to a similarly wasted set piece ten minutes later.  'Never Give Up' and 'Show Us Please! Your Best Performance' urged the banners; Grampus conceded a second goal to Kaoru Takayama but then scored messily with 14 minutes to play when Kengo Kawamata chested down and scuffed in off the underside of the keeper.  The match ended with a flurry of corner kicks, but the only line Nagoya crossed was the one behind the goal.

Admission:  2,900 yen (£1 = 192 yen)
Date:  Saturday July 11th

Friday, 3 July 2015

Ground 268 & 269: Hodogaya Park, Yokohama

It was a typically eventful weekend in Greater Tokyo non-league. In the fourth-tier JFL, around a thousand people paid a fiver each to see Yogokawa Musashino  lose out by the odd goal in three to Sony Sendai; one division lower, the Kanto League's Joyful Tsukuba Honda were soundly beaten in the weekend's only other fixture that fixture required any money at the gate.  Further down the pyramid, there were wins for Zion and Tokyo Gas, the chance of a Sunday afternoon double header split by an airfield up in Chofu, and home games for the eye-catchingly monikered Bono FC, FC Coast, Tokyo Fire Brigade, Flutto-Flutto, Fuji Film, Ganador and Imp.

I'd toyed with visiting all of the above before plumping for the two games to be held in Yokohama's Hodogaya Park, starting with Kanagawa League second division mediocrities FC Asahi - once a Kanto League team themselves - against Yamato S.Matthaus, hometown club of two Women's World Cup winners and the J.League`s Jungo Fujimoto, on a rugby pitch with hastily assembled goalposts, a single stand, fifty or so Australians swigging back cans of beer while recovering from an AFL game scheduled immediately before, and a smaller group of slightly-built Japanese men milling about with soft drinks and 'True Aussie Beef' splashed across their shirts.  "What the hell's this?" someone spluttered. "Coffee?  There's no way I'm drinking any of that."  The footballers placed holdalls down to use as benches, Asahi's player-coach locking arms around a metal railing while occasionally snapping instructions at his team. After an opening half hour every bit as messy as Yamato's kit - two shades of grey with camouflage splodges - Matthaus smashed a first goal from a volley and a second with a trundler that caught the goalkeeper unaware and squirmed between his knees, the embarrassment compounded by the sympathetic noises from the stand.  "What you want to do next time, mate," somebody suggested, "is catch the thing."

The Australians departed along with the sun, leaving behind a transparent bag full of cans, a sky as full of menace as a Nigel Pearson press conference and fewer people on the sidelines than there were on the pitch.  Asahi roused themselves long enough to miss an open goal, but Yamato - beaten 5-2 by runaway leaders Shinagawa the previous weekend  -  completed the tonking with three second half goals, leaving Asahi with just two points from seven games and only the appropriately named All Z separating them from the foot of the table. 

Things were a fair bit livelier on the other side of the park, where undefeated Yokohama GSFC came out to the sight of several dozen schoolkids in replica shirts and beach shorts shrieking "GS Cob-er-a" down plastic megaphones. Their opponents, GEO-X FC, were formed as recently as 2012 but had already climbed through two divisions of the Kanagawa League and were, their website promised, "seriously aimed at the JFL".  Cobra - marooned in the top-flight since 2006  - had won four and drawn two of their opening six games, while GEO had leaked 16 goals and won only once. It was 17 against when the Cobras scored from an early penalty, before the rain sent adults rushing for the back two rows and had the less hardy of the kids wrapping towel scarves around their heads.  GEO-X were all snap and bustle, the game soon degenerating into a series of punts, block challenges and swipes at thin air.  By 20 minutes in, most of the fan club had reached the conclusion that it was more fun to use the megaphones on each other, their attention only momentarily recaptured when Papa Boucary, the Cobras' star foreign signing, set himself like a falling tree trunk, tumbling just far enough to meet a cross with his forehead and redirect it harmlessly wide of the goal.

GEO's leveller came from a toe-poke, a knee and a stumble, their small group of supporters hanging over the fence as red shirts converged on the scorer from all corners of the pitch.  A second almost followed but the would-be hero tripped over in the act of squaring the ball into empty space.  The reds hit the crossbar and twice put the ball the wrong side of the post.  And then, with only seconds left on the clock and Boucary having just shanked a volley almost as far as the corner flag, GEO-X finally smacked in a second goal.  "Through football, strongly, we grow our hearts," said their website the next day. 

Admission:  Free
Date:  Sunday 28th June 2015