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

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

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