Sagantosu 1 Ventforet Kofu 1 (07/09/2008)
Six short hours from Tokyo on the Shinkansen is the island of Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan’s large islands. Nearly 800 miles as the crow flies (albeit rather more slowly than the Shinkansen) away, it can feel, if not quite a different world, almost like a different country. Certainly the pace of life is a lot slower. Even the Island’s big city, Fukuoka, doesn’t have the same feeling of walking the streets with the people coming at you like the over-spilling bubbles from a shaken cola bottle that Tokyo has. What it does have, although I’m sure it’s not as a direct swap, is musical pedestrian crossings with two tunes. One is a jolly little tune, albeit of the sort that a precocious 12 year old would have played on a Casio VL-Tone in the 1980s. The other, for crossing in the other direction, is a dirge that Morrisey would reject as too depressing, and I’d imagine is directly responsible for a large portion of Kyushu’s suicide rate, as depressed types hear it and walk the other way, hoping a nice bus will be coming along. You have to also pity anyone who works with earshot of one, and probably hears the tunes several hundred times every single day of their working lives. I’m sure Yakuza hitmen have been hired for lesser crimes.
Other than Koreans it seems, not too many tourists venture down this way, which is a shame as the island has a lot to offer. Fukuoka is pleasant enough, with plenty of bars among the stereotype neon backdrop by the river.
There’s also the “hells” at Beppu, the multi-themed and often multi-coloured cluster of volcanic springs. Unashamedly touristy, and tackier than a council estate’s pub carpet in places, some of them are quite stunning in their beauty. Towards the far end of the island is Huis ten Bosch, a vast Dutch theme park, where a Disney-style vision of a Dutch canal town, windmills and pointed gable townhouses et al, is dumped among the rugged hills of the region. Given that Holland is like a billiard table in real life, it just adds to the odd charm of the place. It is very pleasant, just incredibly strange. Chris England, in his fine book “No more Buddha, only Football” about his time in Japan for the 2002 World Cup, likened it to the village in Patrick McGoohan’s cult 60s series “The Prisoner”, and it did have enough of that surreal edge to it, particularly on a very non-busy like when I was there, to wonder if any “escape” over the footbridge to the Huis ten Bosch station would be stopped by the giant white balloon “Rovers” before I making it to the other side.
It was returning from another day trip, to Kumamoto, that I took in a game while on the island. Kumamoto itself, apart from a fine large black castle, also has a 350 year old garden, Suizenji-koen, about a mile to the south east. Not really being one for gardens usually, I only went there on the grounds that if I was seeing the castle, I might as well see it as well while I’m there. I was even slightly put out that I had to pay to get in, but I was so glad I did as the place was stunning. It was like something out of a fairy tale, but without being overdone. Every single piece was just right and you felt you could be in no other place in the world but Japan. If only someone would be considerate enough to take a wrecking ball to the few ugly boxy buildings which poke into view over the tree-tops, then the place would be perfect.
Directly on the route back to Fukuoka is the town of Tosu, and close enough to the station to hear the train announcements is Sagantosu’s Best Amenity Stadium. Which amenity in particular the stadium was best at wasn’t specified, although “handy for the station” must be a likely candidate. Nor was is clear why the stadium’s name was spelled out in English on the wall that clear, given that apparently most people in the country don’t speak English. It is something that as English speaker takes a while to notice as it doesn’t stand out – the overwhelming amount of English text that is everywhere is Japan. I’m not just referring to signage, but adverts, shop names and a whole host of things where there doesn’t seem to be any need to not write in Japanese. For whose benefit are commuter trains in Kyushu labelled “Kyushu Commuter Train”? Why is Japan Railway named using two words, neither of which are Japanese, and why did the “Yellow One Man Diesel Car” I saw in Tosu station need to be explicitly named as such?
I just wished they’d saved a little bit more English for the Sagantosu ticket window, where I realised that colour-coded areas marked on the ground plan would be of little use to someone such as myself who’d not learned the Japanese for “yellow”. It still might not have helped, as I’d already realised that small deviations from the correct pronunciation can still leave Japanese scratching their heads in befuddlement (my attempts at ‘Hikone’ completely stumped a ticket collector at Maibara station, despite the town being about 5 miles away and the destination of nearly every single tourist who gets off at the station) . Maybe I could have pointed at the yellow one man diesel car, but as it happened pointing and the power of mime was enough to overcome the language barrier and get my ticket.
Tosu’s stadium is a modern ground, but unlike quite a few, particularly in England sadly, that from the outside look like a warehouse or possibly a multiplex cinema, there was something unmistakably “football-ish” about the place. Maybe that was its best amenity.
Walking up to the entrance I passed some people handing out free gifts of some sort. As I got nearer I realised it was just the standard flyer packs of free tissues, so I wasn’t too bothered, but one of the women handing them out seemed quite insistent, so I took one. They were pretty much at the other end of the cultural spectrum from the maid café tissues I’d been handed a few days earlier, as they were for a performance of Noh Theatre*. I’m not sure if football fans are typical watchers of Noh Theatre or not, but there can’t be too many westerners who go along. Even guide books, which usually praise any local culture to the skies, tend to err on the side of caution that westerners would find a Noh performance “challenging”, which is a polite way of saying “It’ll bore your tits off”. Personally I think I’d be able to appreciate its artistic merit for a good 10 seconds at least, but as much as I’d rather not knock someone’s traditional culture, it sounds hideous. Traditional Japanese singing and music, to me at least, sounds like a banjo player falling down the stairs in slow motion. I’m sure someone from Japan could be just as scathing about, oh I don’t know, Morris Dancing or English folk music, be at least we hate that as well.
At least the second set of freebies were OK – a free match programme (read “one sheet of colourful A4) and a free fan, although the evening was pleasantly cool for Japan. The ground itself was just as good inside as it looked from the outside. Double-decker stands all the way round. Terraces at both ends. Cover down both sides, and a slightly asymmetrical look about it to stop it being monotonous. What more could you ask for? Well, a few more fans being honest. Crowds, as far as I could tell, seemed to be typically around 5000, which is a shame for such a decent stadium. I had high hopes when I first arrived, about an hour before kick-off, as there seemed to be quite a few already in, but they seemed to stop coming in with about half an hour to go. Those that were in, despite the thinness of their numbers, had just enough there to give it a go, and give it a go they did, singing away and waving their flags, and you couldn’t help but wonder what it’d be like if they could tempt more along.
Maybe it’s the club badge. There can be few clubs around the globe who have turquoise and pink as the club colours. The club’s slogan “True champions in the hearts of all who love Sagantosu” (in English, naturally) comes across as a polite Japanese way of saying “we’re shit, and we know we are”. Maybe pink doesn’t have quite the same connotations in Japan as in the west, and Sagantosu’s keeper seemed more than happy to dress from head to toe in a completely pink kit including some fetching pink leggings (either that or he’d stolen the legs of a sunburned Scotsman). The fans, and the rest of the team, opted for the turquoise option.
The game started to a fair degree of enthusiasm, with both team whipping the ball about with purpose and energy, and no little confidence about their moves. That can be a good thing, but very quickly it became clear that on this night the players’ minds were writing cheques their abilities couldn’t cash. All too often, and I could feel my English hackles rising and I kept finding myself wanting to shout at them to keep it simple, but I calmed and tried to enjoy the different style. The approach play was good, no doubting that, but from 30 yards it was all Hollywood passes executed with sub-Bollywood ability. Even after about 20 minutes, it had that worrying look of 0-0 written all over it, and even the fans to my left were noticeably subdued. That half time arrived without either keeper having to do too much wasn’t exactly a shock.
For the second half, sensing that things might not get much better, I vacated my lofty main stand seat with its excellent view on the grounds that there hadn’t been too much to actually view, and went behind the goal with the noisy fans themselves. They were great. I can’t praise them enough. English fans would have been booing at half-time, but they were so bright and cheery you’d think the food kiosk offers shots of Prozac to all who need them. Soon enough they were gearing themselves for another 45 minutes of hard effort in the hope that the team might follow suit. I was surprised at just how many women were among them. They even had a chant that was predominantly sung by the women, with the guys providing a kind of “backing vocals” after their bit, which was certainly a first for me.
Alas the second half started much as the first did, as a refined blend of confidence and incompetence, with the shots not so much raining in as being an occasional light shower. Pretty soon it was obvious that tactics were unlikely to provide a breakthrough, and if there was to be a goal it would take an absolute defensive howler or a real piece of magic to get a breakthrough. With around ten minutes to go, and my deciphering of the Katakana on the team-sheet disappointingly revealing that neither side featured a David Blane or Copperfield among their line-ups, the latter option of a defensive howler took centre stage.
I could be possibly be being unkind, as it was down the far end and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but it looked like the classic situation which causes fans to watch the game through their fingers as they see the horror unfolding in front of them. A high ball bounced towards the Tosu keeper at the far end with defender and attacker giving chase. Now we all know it should be an easy thing to defend, but experience tells us that in those situations keepers and defenders tend to react with the agility of oil tankers. Like an indecisive couple perfectly tuned to be unable to decide what to do together, they both leave then both go for the ball in alternate seconds, allowing the striker to take advantage of the confusion and chip in an easy gift to put the visitors ahead. If my reading of the goal was right then it’s a shame I wasn’t at the other end, as I can imagine I could have learned the Japanese phrases for “gosh, that was a silly thing to do wasn’t it” and “yes, we must try harder to not make such mistakes in the future”.
Normally I’d have imagined that would be the winner, but that goal was like applying cardiac paddles to the Sagantosu side, who burst into life with a zeal and enterprise that didn’t seem possible before. The ball barely left the Kofu half after that, as Sagantosu poured forward. Pressure told and after one or two near things, a half-cleared corner was turned back in, perfectly placed, and even the defender on the line couldn’t stop it floating right into the top corner. The end went crazy. Perhaps a little higher pitched crazy than I’m used to, but crazy all the same. The singing and jumping grew as Sagantosu went on the hunt for the winner that they deserved, on the grounds that they were the only team that had looked dangerous in the whole match, even if it had been only for the last five minutes. They pressed forward. More corners. More pressure. Into injury time, and a shot came in, and it just looked in. The keeper was beaten, but somehow, almost unbelievably, it just went the wrong side of the post. Then deep into injury time, the ball broke again. A Tosu forward, 12 yards out, just the keeper to beat, volleys towards goal. Anywhere but directly at the keeper and it’s the winner. But, sadly, the forward seemingly thought he’s spotted a hole in the keeper’s stomach and aimed for that. Five and a half thousand heads go into eleven thousand hands. That was the chance, and everyone knew it, and also knew there wouldn’t be another. The whistle went but seconds later.
Such is football that a match that is pretty dire for 80 minutes can leave you feeling you witnessed a great game at 90 if things go right. It was a terrific finish, and even if it lacked that winner that would really have made it perfect, I still sensed that people went away happy rather than disappointed. The crowd gave them a rousing send off. True they didn’t win, but perhaps it is true, that in the hearts of those who love Sagantosu, it was enough to make them seem like champions. As my souvenir scarf say, they were proud to say “We are Sagantosu”. I’m still not sure about that pink though.
* While doing the bare minimum of research for writing this, I was pleased to noticed that the main actors in a noh performance are called “the shite” (pronounced more like shi-teh), so if you were to ever meet a small time noh actor and said he put in a shite performance, he’d be quite pleased.
And here’s the depressing one…