For the second time in six months, I spent the early hours of a Sunday morning on a flight bound for Tokyo. That last visit ended with a footballing disappointment, and this trip began in a similar manner. I had hoped to make it a Sunday double-header, and with a lot of football being played in and around Tokyo, I was confident of pulling it off. When my flight landed 30 minutes early and it took less than that time to navigate immigration and customs I opted for the boldest of choices.
Narita Airport is located some 60km to the east of Tokyo, while out in the the city’s west, FC Tokyo were taking on Cerezo Osaka. The main reason for that choice was the chance to visit Ajinomoto Stadium. Tokyo’s home ground is the subject of one of my favorite football adverts, which tells the story of a young man who moves away to university and is pleased to find his new home to be full of attractive young women. However, to the new-arrival’s despair, the pretty local women all turn out to be remarkably hoarse. Eventually he finds a suitably dulcet-toned, but less attractive young lady who reveals the reason behind her gendermate’s vocal issues.
Alas, it was not to be. My train from the airport rolled into Shinjuku Station at 12:45pm and with Tokyo’s busiest station to negotiate, followed by a 20-minute ride, the 1pm kick-off was an impossibility. With better contingency plans (or better wi-fi, something Japan does something surprisingly badly), I might have made one of the afternoon games in Yokohama, Chiba, Kashiwa, Shonan, or even regional league Machida. Instead, I spent the afternoon strolling Shinjuku and neighboring Harajuku, before heading north for the main purpose of my visit.
For reasons previously explained on these pages, I chose Omiya Ardija as my J-League team some time ago. I‘d seen them in Osaka around this time last season and for this year’s J-League adventure I wanted to make it to a home game. Situated just to Tokyo’s north, Omiya is part of the city of Saitama. While it can boast a John Lennon Museum and the National Railway Museum, its footballing claim-to-fame is undoubtedly its World Cup stadium. The ground is home to Omiya’s well-supported and well-funded city rivals Urawa Reds and hosted four 2002 World Cup games, including the Brazil-Turkey semi-final.
Omiya’s NACK5 Stadium, as it is currently known, is considerably less glamorous, but has history of own. Although it has not have been graced by the likes of Ronaldo or David Beckham, it did host four matches in the 1964 Olympic Football Stadium.
Omiya Station was around a 30-minute train ride from Shinjuku and arriving there was an eye-opener to just how busy Tokyo and its surrounding area can be. Despite the sun having already gone down on a Sunday evening, the station was a surprisingly crowded place. Fortunately, among the masses were several orange Omiya hats, scarves and bags, which led me to the correct exit (from a choice of many). Outside, there were Omiya flags and banners all along the streets, with most supporters heading along a busy, narrow alleyway.
The bannered lampposts continued at the alley’s exit and lit the way to Omiya Park, where the stadium is located. On a corner at the park’s entrance was the Orange Square, the club shop. Given how much I had paid for a scarf during my last visit, I wasn’t surprised that a club shirt came in at a higher price than I was willing to pay. I did, however, pick up a fans’s “Protect this House” t-shirt before making my way through the park to the ground.
Soon the floodlights came into view through the trees and it wasn’t long before I’d purchased my ticket (at a reasonable enough 3,500JPY, or just the wrong side of £20) and was inside the ground. Even though there was almost an hour before kick-off, the narrow concourses of the 15,000-capacity stadium were already crammed. I browsed the stalls selling a variety of soups and noodle dishes, before choosing the vendor with the biggest pictures to point at; the Japanese language is a complete mystery to me. The Japanese seem to share the British love of queuing and this was a particularly slow-moving line. 20-minutes later, I was six or seven people from my noodles when the vendor announced he had sold out. Feeling defeated, I bought a beer and took my seat to watch the warm-up.
The home end to my right was already near-full, with flags being vigorously waved and songs being loudly sung. This did not seem like a group of supporters who follow a team on a six-game losing streak, and who have lost 14 out of the last 15 J-League matches. After a strong finish to the 2012 season, Omiya flew out of the blocks in 2013 and even led the J-League in some of the early stages, but are ending it lucky that the relegation places have been decided early.
As kick-off approached, an Australian family sat next to me with the dad asking if I had come to see Lucas. The Lucas he was referring to was his fellow countrymen Lucas Neill, signed in the summer to shore up a leaky defense. However, playing time has not come easily for Neill and his Aussie fans were disappointed when I informed him them their national team captain was starting on the bench.
In the end, they didn’t have to wait long to see their man, although his entrance came in sad circumstances. In the opening minutes, Omiya captain Kosuke Kikuchi had a nasty clash of heads with a Kofu player and the players’ reactions suggested something serious; it was not a surprise to see the skipper stretchered away immediately down the tunnel.
Omiya recovered from that loss quickly and looked comfortable in the early stages. Kofu, though, had lots of pace on the wings and, with powerful Brazilian striker Patric leading the line, looked very dangerous on the counter-attack.
And that was how the goal came. Kofu’s Kawamoto broke at speed and his low cross was bundled across the line for an own goal. For the rest of the half, the Omiya players looked like a group who can’t buy a win and it remained 1-0 at the break.
However, whatever the manager said while I was in the world’s longest male bathroom queue, it seemed to work. Omiya looked re-energised and were putting Kofu under a lot of pressure. Their attacks had relied on crosses aimed at their big Slovenian strikers Zlatan Ljubijankic and Milivoje Novakovic, but the quality of crossing had generally been very poor; something which was clearly irking my Aussie neighbour as his mild profanities were becoming more and more frequent (to his wife’s dismay). Eventually, Novakovic looked liked getting on the end of a ball aimed at the far post, but the slightest of tugs on his shirt prevented him getting there. The referee, however, ruled no penalty. Novakovic was incensed, but it was his countryman whose protestations earned him a second yellow and an early bath. It was silly from the man who has made the brave call of having simply ‘Zlatan ‘ on the back of his shirt. His first yellow had been for a petulant kick and his team could ill afford to go a man down.
The sending off played into the hands of Kofu’s counter-attacking gameplan and it was inevitable when one break ended with Patric out-muscling his marker to add a second. For the first time, the fans seemed to lose faith, with a small but noticeable number heading for the exits. The players continued to work hard, but ultimately never really showed enough quality to win this game. Novakovic added a late consolation, scoring a free-kick that was almost identical to one I’d seen him score last year as the game ended 2-1.
It was a shame, although, given recent form, not a surprise to see Omiya lose. It was still a very positive football-watching experience. Despite the on-field issues, Omiya seem like a good club with great support. Their small ground was still two-thirds full and the banners and flags around the city suggest most remain behind the team. ‘Local’ is a word that continues to have positive connotations in football and many of them seem like they could be applied to Omiya. That can’t have been achieved easily with so much football and other entertainment in such easy reach. Fortunately the early season form means another J-League season is a certainty. Maybe next time the fans will get to enjoy a less topsy-turvy year.
HIGHS: Great little stadium in a nice setting; Great fans; Always good to see a free-kick end up in the top corner; my Aussie neighbour’s growing enthusiasm as the game progressed.
LOWS: Those food and toilet queues; Omiya’s losing streak continuing.