Lost in… Sapporo

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo vs Shimizu S-Pulse

Sapporo Dome, J.League 2, August 7th 2016

Most people who know me well are aware that I like a bit of football trivia. My previous football team even invented a drinking game- ‘Challenge Taffy’- whereby they would take turns asking me football trivia questions. Get it wrong, I drank. Get it right, they drank. The amateur psychologist in me would probably say trivia has always been my way of sounding knowledgeable about the game I love around people who were actually much better players than me, but who knows (this psychology obviously worked on my old team who made me responsible for team selection and tactics. Trivia, however, only gets you so far; we were relegated twice).

One of my early trivia favourites was the “Name all the football league endings”. In most seasons there were about 20 and getting to 17 or 18 was pretty easy, but I would usually have to write them down in order to get all 20. Currently the Premier League and English Football League has 21  different end names (if Crystal Palace and Port Vale count) and I am still confident of naming 17 or 18 pretty quickly. If such a thing as a Japanese football trivia enthusiast exists, however, 21 names would probably seem a doddle.

In J.Leagues 1 and 2 alone there I counted 36 different names, but it’s not just the quantity that makes naming them all difficult. There are no repeats, no multiple Uniteds or Citys. There’s also the fact that they come in a variety of foreign languages. There’s German (Zweigen Kanazawa), Portuguese (Jubilo Iwata), and Spanish (Cerezo Osaka). Many even use a portmanteau or just make something up.

Take Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. Consadole is a combination of ‘Dosanko’, a Japanese word for the people of Hokkaido, and the popular football chant ‘Ole’. I only learned this bit of trivia recently, but I have wanted to visit Consadole Sapporo (the Hokkaido prefix was only added this season as the team marked 20 years on Japan’s northernmost island) for almost as long as I have lived in Asia. Fortunately, my wife and I had chosen Hokkaido for this year’s summer holiday and I would finally get the chance.

After five days of sightseeing, cycling, sipping good beers and slurping good noodles, day six was game day. The excitement had been building over the week as trains, shopping centres, bars, and restaurants in and around Sapporo were adorned with posters advertising the team and its fixtures. Consadole share their home with the local baseball team, Nippon Ham Fighters, who were even more ubiquitous around the region. As baseball is Japan’s favourite sport, it’s the footballers who move when there is a fixture clash. But the Fighters were a long way away in Fukuoka and Consadole would be taking on Shimizu S-Pulse at one the venues I have wanted to visit for a long time: the Sapporo Dome.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone be excited to watch football in a baseball stadium? After all, It looks weird when New York City FC play at Yankee Stadium and then there was that whole NWSL small-field debacle recently. Well, the Japanese, as they often do, have a solution. They built a transformer stadium.

Opened in 2001, the Sapporo Dome seats just over 40,000 fans while in baseball mode. However, in around two hours it is able to transform into soccer mode. This transformation involves stands being raised on a bed of air, a football pitch being transported into the dome, and many other things that I could most easily explain by copying and pasting them from Wikipedia. Instead, just watch this video.

But it’s not just its ability to transform. The Sapporo Dome has some football pedigree, too. Miroslav Klose scored three of his 16 World Cup goals there against Saudi Arabia in 2002. In the same tournament, Christian Vieri bagged two of his total of nine World Cup goals and, mostly famously, David Beckham completed his four-year journey from pariah to messiah with England’s winning goal against Argentina. Over the next few years it is also scheduled to host the Asian Winter Games and matches at both the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Football Tournament.

The day I attended the Sapporo Dome began with a museum visit, a museum celebrating the product most synonymous with the city of Sapporo: its beer. While some brewing still takes place on the grounds to supply the museum’s vast beer gardens, the original home of the Sapporo beer company now serves as an homage to the company’s history. After the brief free tour, we enjoyed a small sample set, but had to skip the beer garden and head to the subway.

Fukuzuni Station was about 20 minutes away at the end of the Toho Subway Line and the Dome was a further 10-minute walk. Not being overly familiar with sports domes, it looks a bit odd on first sighting, certainly not like somewhere you would normally go to watch football.

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Fukuzuni Station

First sighting

Consadole Sapporo were formed in 1995 when Toshiba S.C. moved from the city of Kawasaki to Hokkaido. In the twenty years of playing in Hokkaido, 15 years have been spent in Japan’s second tier, which they have won on three occasions. They are currently on course for a fourth title and promotion to J.League 1, leading the way with almost two-thirds of the season played. Their current squad also has links to 2002, with midfielders Junichi Inamoto (ex-Arsenal, Fulham, West Brom and Cardiff City) and Shinji Ono (ex-Feyenoord), although neither of the 36 year-olds are regular starters.

Two behind-the-goal tickets for this match against sixth-placed Shimizu S-Pulse cost 2,700¥ (about £20) each. Moving onto the concourse, we were handed some free programmes (all in Japanese and in the back-to-front Japanese format) and the baseball influence became apparent. There are stacks of vendors selling all kinds of food and drink, but after a week of Japanese food we opted for the comfort and convenience of KFC. We took two seats behind the main home supporters section and enjoyed our lunch, to which we added two Sapporo Classic beers which were poured at our seats by a very smiley beer-seller.

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The impressive big screens

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Teams out, scarves and balloons out

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Pre-match huddles

Opponents Shimizu S-Pulse are familiar to shirt-spotters everywhere for their orange shirts complete with world map print (the club’s backers are Japan Airlines), and there were plenty of those spectacular jerseys in the away end. They looked a lively, noisy bunch, but were sadly drowned out by the stadium’s loud entertainment system. After being treated to a trailer for a new Japanese Godzilla film and four minutes of the most dramatic team entrance music I’ve ever heard, it was the home fans turn to burst into song. The players’ arrival on the field was also greeted with the release of hundreds of red and black balloons.

It only took a few minutes for Sapporo to open the scoring. Defender Fukumori chipped a pass forward and Uchimura did superbly to steer the ball past Sugiyama. As the ball went in, Godzilla appeared on the giant screens and let out his familiar roar. Another long ball caused the Shimizu defence problems and Sugiyama, who should have done more to prevent the opener, needed two attempts to stop Tokura doubling the home side’s lead.

The second goal was not long in coming, however. Under pressure from Tokura, the S-Pulse keeper continued his shaky start by clearing the ball to Jonathan Reis. Sapporo’s ex-PSV midfielder controlled the ball, before placing it into the empty net from 25 yards. My wife missed the goal, but had heard Godzilla’s roar from the bathroom, which had impressed her with the Japanese logical system of displaying which cubicles were free. She returned with more beer.

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Panorama

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Half-time

Half-time arrived with the scores unchanged. It was a decent half, but Sapporo hadn’t really had to work very hard for their lead. They had, however, lost Reis who had seemingly picked up an injury in scoring.

The city of Sapporo’s motto is ‘Be ambitious,’ but its football team were anything but in the second half. 2-0 up and with Shimizu only getting one shot on target in the opening half, they were to sit and defend their lead. The on-field action reached such a low that my wife and I ended up discussing ballperson (that’s how they had been introduced pre-match) positioning and tactics.

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Flags

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Consadole on the attack

Things began to pick up as S-Pulse made some attacking substitutions and they began regularly getting shots on target. North Korean striker Jong TaeSe, once dubbed ‘The Asian Rooney’, was to the fore. First he headed against the bar. Minutes later he hit the post on the turn, but substitute Kitagawa was first to the rebound to pull a goal back. Less than 10 minutes later, Jong got a deserved equaliser with a looping header. Godzilla was clearly only supporting the home team as neither S-Pulse goal was greeted with his roar.

Sapporo threw on the Brazilian Julinho to try and take the attacking initiative away from Shimizu. The fourth official showed five minutes and neither team seemed to want to settle for the point. With just a minute to play, Homura was first to another long pass and lifted the ball over Sugiyama. The chasing defenders couldn’t stop the ball rolling over the line and Sapporo had all three points. Godzilla roared a third time and Tokura celebrated wildly in front of the home fans. A minute later he dropped to his knees to punch the ground in celebration as the final whistle blew.

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 3-2 Shimizu S-Pulse

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Tokura was giving an interview on the big screen as the home fans sat patiently and quietly. Maybe they were waiting for some exciting post-match ritual, but we couldn’t wait around to see. We had a train to catch and I had read online that leaving the Dome could be slow-going.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case and we were back at Sapporo Station with enough time for one last bowl of noodles- I opted for the less authentic, but still delicious spicy miso ramen- and to purchase beer for the long long train-ride to Hakodate. Japan’s big breweries are fighting back against the craft beer movement with their own special brews and my Suntory Saisons were a good choice.

The following morning we were returning to Tokyo after a wonderful week in Hokkaido and a visit to the Sapporo Dome was a great way to end it (for me, anyway). It’s not necessarily a great football stadium, but it is a magnificent place to watch football. It certainly lived up to my expectations.

The visit also reiterated what a great place Japan is to watch football. This was my fourth time watching football there and, while the cost is much more than I’m used to paying in Vietnam or even South Korea, it’s always a great experience. The Sapporo fans were excellent and sang for pretty much the whole 90 minutes and, despite the early second half lull, it had been a good game. Hopefully I haven’t yet seen the last of Japan and its football.

Good: Amazing arena; the convenience of Japan; beer in your seat; great home and away support; five goals

Bad: Japanese football is (relatively) expensive

 

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