For almost my entire adult life, I’ve lived, worked, and studied outside the borders of Wales. Along the way, I’ve picked up soft spots for many football clubs that I’ve come into contact with. First came Portsmouth and theirs is still one of the first results I look for, after studying in the naval city. While studying in northern Germany, a German friend took a group of foreign students to watch Hamburg SV play the Bayer Leverkusen treble-runners-up side of 2002 (ten years later, I finally got to see HSV play again- twice- as they toured South Korea this past summer). In Spain, it was Osasuna, but they were a tough club to love and, in contradiction to the old adage, absence has certainly not made the heart grow fonder. Finally, of course, there’s Incheon United who I’ve already written about several times on this blog.
Perhaps strangest among the teams I’ve chosen to follow is Omiya Ardija. One day, I just decided I needed to choose a J-League team so that I’d have a reason to pay more attention to Asia’s biggest league. Around the time of this realisation, Chang Woe-Ryang, the great manager who in the space of a year turned Incheon United from debutant K-League fodder to league runners-up, left the Munhak Stadium to take the managerial reins at Omiya. Soon after, he was joined by some familiar K-League faces, most notably the rock on which 2008 Champions Suwon’s defence was built, Mato Neretljak. This handful of names aside I knew nothing of Omiya. However, after passing a final, but vital, test- what kind of kit do they wear?- the decision was made; Omiya Ardiya were my new J-League team (it’s orange and blue, in case you were wondering).
A mid-table finish meant Chang did not win the supporters’ love in Japan the way he had at Incheon and he departed several weeks into his second season. His K-League signings also left to return to Korea or move elsewhere. I’ve kept an eye on Omiya in the post-Chang era and learned a few things. Firstly, they play in the city of Saitama and they are city rivals with the more famous Urawa Reds. Secondly, they’re not that good, finishing 13th, 12th, and 13th in the 18-team J-League since 2009. Finally, I also learned that their nickname is the squirrels, with Ardija coming from the Spanish word for squirrel, ‘Ardillo.’ (While we’re on the subject of the etymology of J-League teams, in researching this trip to Japan I was saddened to learn that Cerezo Osaka has nothing to do with Brazilian legend Cerezo Toninho as I had always I believed to be the case.)
In recent years, Korea-Japan air routes have been flooded by budget airlines, so it seemed like a great time to go and check out my favourite J-Leaguers in the flesh. I had initially planned to visit Tokyo with a detour to Saitama for the city derby with Urawa, but it clashed with the first day of the season in the expat league I play in. With my position as player-manager already precarious, it would have become untenable had I skipped town just to watch a team I had a mild interest in. The only break in the season was a weekend in November when Omiya were away to Cerezo Osaka. That would have to do.
I’d been to Osaka a few years ago, so wouldn’t feel guilty about skipping the city’s sights in favour of a football match between two bottom-half J-League sides. Omiya were in a relegation struggle, but were on an excellent run of form coming into the Cerezo game having gone unbeaten in the league since late-August. Just four points ahead in the table, Cerezo themselves were not entirely out of the running for the drop, either.
My early morning flight got me into Kansai International Airport before lunchtime, which meant I did have time to visit the city’s renowned aquarium. It did not disappoint. Now, I’m no aquarium aficionado, but this one is the best I’ve visited. From there, having seen my first ever whale shark, it was a relatively short subway ride across town to the Nagai Sports Complex, the location of Cerezo’s home, Kincho Stadium.
Often on my football-watching trips to new locations, I suffer minor panics where I think I must have got something wrong; the date, the kick-off time, the stadium, something. With zero Japanese and no wi-fi available to check the match details (even though I’d checked again and again during the previous week), the first mild anxiety attack came immediately after collecting my baggage. Had I just wasted money on a flight for a football match that wasn’t even happening?
Fortunately I spotted a confused-looking Japanese man in bright Omiya-orange. Phew. Back to the subway, and it was time for the next wave of panic. It had been bucketing down with rain all day and this train, through the heart of city and on the only line that went to Nagai Station, was decidedly short of football fans. However, a few stops from the stadium, the middle-aged lady sitting next to me dipped into her rucksack, pulled out a pink and blue scarf (the colors of Cerezo), and wrapped it around her neck. Double phew.
I exited the station and there they were; thousands upon thousands of full-body pink raincoats. Pleasantly, there were also a healthy number of orange ones. Just as I’d seen in Thailand a few weeks ago, the away team had the clever idea of bringing along their own little merchandising shack which allowed me to purchase an Omiya scarf. I’d looked at J-League football jerseys online before coming and was shocked at being quoted around £150. The exorbitant amount of money I had to lay out for my new scarf leads me to believe the £150 was not a typo (I won’t tell you the actual price because my wife might read this). J-League football is expensive.
Next up was finding a ticket. This wasn’t difficult, but for someone used to paying around £5 to watch top-flight Korean football, the near £25 ticket price came as something of a shock. The expense was partly down to my desire to sit in the one covered stand because as much fun as the away end looked- a simple grass banking- the rain was still lashing down.
Entering the stadium concourse I was handed all manner of free stuff- McDonalds’ vouchers, paper tissues, a triangular rice-wrapped-in-seaweed snack- and headed to the bar. A beer came in at, a by now unsurprisingly steep, £4+ and I headed to my seat. Happily there was a small group of Omiya fans nearby who’d also plumped for the undercover seating, so if things got cold, I could pull out my newly-purchased scarf without (hopefully) being lynched by locals.
The pitch looked very wet. Even in the warm-up, the ball was holding up a lot in the passing drills, although it didn’t look likely to fail the bounce test. The players disappeared down the tunnel into dry and it was my for one of my least favourite parts of any pre-game schedule: the fan hymn. There are exceptions of course, but Cerezo Osaka is not one of them. In fact, it’s one of the worst I’ve come across. It goes like this:
Wow, wow, wow, CEREZO
We belong to you, CEREZO
Wow, wow, wow, CEREZO,
We give you joy, CEREZO.
There follows some bits in Japanese, which I grant may be much nicer on the ear, before the big finale.
Power and glory!
Thankfully, it was game time. The conditions made for a scrappy start to the game with Omiya in particular looking to use the long ball in search of big Slovenian forward Zlatan Ljubiankic. Cerezo Osaka looked slightly the more threatening, but Omiya’s Kitano did enough to keep their long range efforts out. In a first half of few real chances, Omiya took a 40th-minute lead when Milivoje Novakovic, another Slovenian, curled a beautiful free-kick over the wall and past Kim JinHyeon, Cerezo’s Korean keeper. The football in the first half hadn’t been the best, but the team I’d come to watch were winning, the rain appeared to be stopping, and my beer cup was full again courtesy of one of the several young ladies selling beer directly in the stands.
As the conditions slowly improved in the second half, so too did the quality of football. Omiya were first to take advantage of the drying surface with a wonderful counter-attacking goal. Defending a free-kick in their own penalty area, they got the ball clear and raced up field. Watabe and Watanabe exchanged passes and the former powered through Kim’s legs. Kim was not best-pleased and, as the Omiya players celebrated, had to be held back as he screamed at his defenders.
Cerezo pulled a goal back with twenty minutes to play, but it was Omiya who got the game’s fourth to settle the affair. Kim had nobody but himself to blame on this occasion, after he tamely palmed a cross into the path of Takuya Aoki to seal the three points. The Omiya fans had been excellent throughout, particularly given the conditions, and were now delirious.
After the game, it was back to my capsule hotel (something I’d certainly recommend trying if you’re in Japan, though I personally wouldn’t fancy more than a night or two in there) and a sauna to get dry and warm.
The victory could be vital in securing another season in the J-League for Omiya. With just two games to play they find themselves in a five-way tussle, which now includes Cerezo, for the final relegation slot. After another successful football tourism adventure, I for one will be hoping they maintain their top-flight status and hopefully returning for another game or two next season.
Highs: First J-League experience; excellent crowd in terrible weather (especially given three-quarters of the stadium is uncovered; beer brought to your seat; seeing Omiya Ardija win.
Lows: The weather was rubbish; the cost, while not prohibitive, was certainly more than I expected.