Tuesday, 26 December 2006

About football

So, as alluded to in the last post, which being over a month ago I am sure most have forgotten (I had until I read it again), recently I went to a footy match. This was the first time I had been to a J-League 1 match (the equivalent of the English Premiership (in terms of, well, being the number one league in the country, but in terms of money it is well down, but in terms of excitement and lack of play acting, it is far, far ahead)) before, but I had been to see football (that is, Association Football, rather than Rugby Football or Aussie Rules) in the past, a World Cup qualifier no less, in 1997 I think, when Japan played the UAE. But no, this was the first league match.

So what prompted you? I hear you muse. Simple really, I got a pair of free tickets so thought ‘what the heck, may as well use them!’ the free tickets came about because, strangley, the old NEC laptop disintegrated. When we bought the new one the deal with the shop was that if we changed to NTT for our broadband connection, at no extra cost, they would give us 20,000 yen’s worth of points at the selfsame shop, and as NTT sponsor one of the teams we watched, for some reason they decided to throw in a pair of freebie footy tickets into the bargain. And they even gave a choice of which games you wanted to watch. Great.

So Steve and I duly made our way to Saitama Stadium 2002, where I ahd been before to play 5-a-side footy many years ago (I even wrote about it somewhere in this blog, but I don’t remember where so sorry, no link). Now if you remember, when I wrote that post, the home team was Urawa Reds – they are still mainly the home team and play most of their games there, but they are sponsored by Mitsubishi (I think), so it was not them. Oh no, we went to see Omiya Ardija. Omiya is a big city brother of Urawa but has a pretty rubbish footy team, though having said that they are in J-1, something they could not claim a couple of years ago, and it does add a little spice to the derby games. (And no, by the way, neither Steve nor I have any idea what an Ardija is – it might be a rodent of sorts, apparently, but no one we asked knew either).

Now once, when I lived in London, I went to a premiership game. I, for al my faults, am a supporter of Middlesbrough, mainly for the simple reason that I was born there. In London I have a chum who is a Chelsea supporter (for the simple reason that he was born in Fulham). He often got tickets for games and surprisingly it was quite easy to come by tickets to watch ‘Boro as they weren’t, and aren’t, one of your sought after draws. When we went to that game we met in a pub in Fulham and I was under strict instructions not to wear anything that might incriminate me as in some way a Middlesbrough fan as I might get lynched – we were to sit in the Chelsea stands after all. The walk to Stamford Bridge was through the streets of west London and was one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life. It was threatening, tense and oppressive, and that was just the walk to the bar. Inside the ground there was a hostility I have not encountered anywhere else, especially when, in the 90th minute, a Chelsea defender deliberately handled the ball in the area and Alan Boksic (I think) completed the penalty and tied the game at 2-2. The walk back wasn’t too pleasant either. It was not the sort of atmosphere I would ever want to take a family to enjoy, there were police a-plenty so I don’t think anything would have kicked off, but you just don’t know and the attitude of the police didn’t exactly make the afternoon any better. Worse probably, but then I suppose they have been dealing with this every Saturday afternoon for years.

Now I know that the Japanese have a very different take on these things, and reports from England hooligans fans after the 2002 World Cup was friendly and efficient staff and stewards at the games, but I wondered how things might have changed in 4 years. The good news was not a lot. We got to the station about 30 minutes before kick off and had about a 2km stroll to the stadium. Plenty of other fans were strolling with us and, like my experience in London, plenty were draped in flags and other tribal insignia. But everyone was really happy. The atmosphere was more like, well, for want of a better comparision, that everyone was off to watch a rugby match rather than a football match. And there was not one policeman to be seen, in fact the only uniform we saw between the station and the stadium was three chaps directing pedestrians across an extremely un-busy that crossed the route at an inopportune point at about two-thirds distance.

The stadium was as big and impressive as I remembered it, but this time I got to see the inside as well, which was nice. On the inside it was jolly big, but as we were watching Omiya Ardija vs. Kashima Antlers (a team with a storied past but now on leaner times), it wasn’t exactly full (the attendance was, I think, about 12,000 in a place that could hold well over 40,000). Now as we had freebie tickets we were in the ‘unreserved’ section, which meant, again astoundingly to anyone who’s been to a football match in England, anyone could sit where they wanted and opposing fans could intermingle with impunity. And they did. The hardcore fans occupy opposing ends behind the goals, as can be seen from this photo (after Kashima scored)

But everywhere else is far more relaxed – it’s almost as if the people have paid money to come along and actually watch the game, rather than fight or hurl abuse at people not from the same town as them. Or something. But that is not to say that there wasn’t an atmosphere in the place. Oh no, there was plenty of that, with both sets of hardcore fans doing there bit for chanting and singing. But again for the rest of us it was all pleasantly low key. The hard core fans were fascinating to watch as they represented a microcosm of Japanese culture (he pontificates, donning an in-no-way-deserved anthropological hat). If you look at this photo you’ll see a bunch of guys standing at the bottom facing towards the terraces:

These guys are the organizers. They are paid members of the club and it is their job to gee everyone up by organizing a constant stream of chanting, singing and flag waving. They didn’t watch the game except for a corner-of-the-eye job to make sure the chants were appropriate for the action. They shouted, heckled, cajoled, whipped and generally made the hard core follow their lead. In Japan, you see, you mustn’t do spontaneity, individuality is a no-no; if you want to support a team you must do what the team supporter’s manager says you do. This happens at baseball games as well, even at high school games apparently (according to Steve, who has attended a few at his school), and volleyball and basketball as well, I don’t doubt. It is a reflection of society as a whole, that to take part you must join in with everyone else. If you want to chant at a footy match you stand behind the goal and do it there with the hardcore – no one around us chanted in any way during the game. Interestingly the one game, as far as I am aware, that doesn’t follow this pattern is rugby. Certainly all the games I’ve been to, and more that I’ve watched on TV, none have had this hardcore organizer element to make sure everyone is, literally, singing from the same page.

So anyway, we watched the game and the Antlers scored in less than 30 seconds from the kick off to get, as it were, the ball rolling, and never looked back. The final score was 0-3 to the visitors, but it was a bit of a mid-table nothing game as neither team was in danger of winning the league or being relegated (for the record the league winners were, in fact, our old pals Urawa Reds, who were pipped at the post in 2005 but were not to be denied this season). The atmosphere was pleasant and positive and there were plenty of families in attendance. This might also be due to the fact that tickets are dirt cheap. I know ours we freebies, but the regular price is only something like a tenner, if that, so a family of four can watch a game for comfortably less than 50 quid, which is what I might have to pay if I wanted to watch a reprise of the Chelsea-Boro match by myself this season.

Anyway, here are some more photos, next up will be my trip to the Uk and then Christmas (were about a month behind, I reckon, with these posts, but will try to get as much written in the next week or so whilst I am on my Christmas and new year hols)

Spirit of Zico? No wonder Ardija lost...

Interesting spelling there...

And from one English football hooligan...

...to another