Traipsing around the grounds of the Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League, following the Byron Bay Red Devils as The Echo’s sideline eye, was hardly the most rewarding experience of 2016. Not to put too fine a point on, the boys had a season to forget, but at least the hike out to Kyogle was made bearable by a thumping victory over the Turkeys.
So after witnessing every minute of the Devils’ inglorious, often luckless campaign, it was with a ton of relief that I flew to Japan, where nobody has ever heard of ‘the greatest game of all’. But old habits die hard for the footy hack and after a while I found myself longing for the smell of liniment and the roar of the crowd (or is it the smell of the crowd… ?).
Checking out the sports pages of the English-language Japan Times one day, wondering if a break from the temples and castles might do me the world of good, I noticed that F C Tokyo would be playing at home on the weekend. Boom boom! Take me out to the ball game, Fuji!
Notwithstanding the Cherry Blossoms’ historic defeat of the Springboks at the last Rugby World Cup, soccer is the mob’s preferred code of football in Japan. The J League was established in 1993 and, now with 18 teams involved in Division One, it is generally regarded as Asia’s elite competition.
Being the mega-city that it is, I expected FC Tokyo to be a powerhouse, in the way that Man U, Real Madrid and AC Milan are in their domestic leagues. Founded in 1998, however, Tokyo (it has no nickname) is yet to win its first title and was placed mid-ladder leading into the clash with Vegalta Sendai (the Kashima Antlers, 2016’s gun side, who were on their way to winning an eighth crown).
Getting to Ajinomoto Stadium was dead easy – after half an hour’s study of the city’s intricate rail network, that is. Public transport in Japan is simply phenomenal. If you miss your train, another one will be along in five minutes, with carriage doors pulling up at exactly the spot marked for them on the platform. Passengers are requested not to speak on their mobiles, so they don’t, and the quiet is lovely.
Anybody who has ever been to a game of footy is familiar with the buzz that you feel when you get off the bus or train to make the last leg of your journey to the ground on foot. Suddenly you are surrounded by fellow travellers, their step quickening, their thoughts consumed by excitement and anxiety, hope and dread and all of the primeval vapours that swirl around a game-day football experience.
I purchased my ticket for 2,700 yen (a bit over thirty bucks), and took my seat among the great unwashed (except that nobody in Japan is unwashed) near one of the corner flags and about twenty rows back. The stadium, which has a capacity of 50,000 (another surprise – I expected twice that many) was half-full, meaning that I had no trouble getting a beer and something to eat – and to my astonishment (and joy), they sold chips! Hundreds of cheer-girls kept everybody happy for half an hour before the two sides emerged from the tunnel.
FC Tokyo wore the red and blue strip of Barcelona, while their opponents were decked out in the yellow shirts and blue shorts of Brazil. Supporters of both sides were going the rat well before kick-off, with the crew who’d made the trip down from Sendai, though vastly outnumbered and corralled into the area behind the southern goal, giving their hosts a bath in the chanting stakes. Non-stop they went at it, roaring their battle cry to the tune of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. It was bloody magnificent! I’m with them, I decided (you can’t be impartial at the footy – you might as well not go if you are.)
I wouldn’t know one end of a soccer ball from the other, so I daren’t comment on the quality of the match. But the punters were clearly into it and when Kota Mizinuma – a nippy little midfielder who took a lot of punishment from his markers – slotted one into the back of the net at the 14th minute, the red-and-blue faction went berko.
What happened next was surreal, even by the standards of a country where weirdness is everyday. You could have knocked me down with a feather.
That great anthem popularised by Liverpool supporters standing on Anfield’s Kop, You’ll never walk alone, was sung. Not many people in Japan speak English, so to hear their rendition of the classic that most of us associate with Gerry and the Pacemakers was fabulously cute – or ‘kawai’, as they would have it.
Even more bizarre, the lyrics were shown on the giant scoreboard, as though it were an outdoor karaoke session, in English!
It was a brilliant and unforgettable afternoon, but to tell you the truth, I can’t wait to see the boys rack up their first win at Red Devil Park in the 2017 comp.
Maybe Gerry Marsden over the PA will give them a leg up.