Omiya Ardija 1 Thespakusatsu Gunma 1 (23rd August 2015)
Another Japanese game, another pre-match stop-off in the Hub chain of British pubs, handily en-route to the ground. Another pizza with chopsticks too, perhaps topped later in the evening by a chicken & chips in a Scottish pub in Shinjuku, which had the chicken covered in almonds, and was served with a knife, fork, and spoon.
It’s not that I’m your typical Englishman abroad who refuses to eat “any of that foreign muck”, it’s just that a lack of English menus, especially way out in the northern Tokyo suburbs around Omiya, and a lack of food that’s easy to identify from pictures, plus the occasional frightening English description don’t help. “Salted squid guts” or “chicken gizzards” don’t really tempt you in, and taking a lucky guess would be very risky in a country pointing at a random fried thing could have the chef praising you for going for the fish head platter.
Luckily the game at Omiya held no such worries. I’d researched the route to the ground, even spotting a temple next door where I could pop in and have a look round, and I knew where I’d be sitting, even if reading my ticket wouldn’t be the world’s easiest thing.
The ground was incredibly similar to the one I’d seen at Kashiwa three days earlier, just a little neater on the main stand side, and both ends here had 2nd tier of tier of seats behind the terracing. And the main colour here was orange. Other than that, very similar indeed.
One difference was that Omiya’s “Nack 5 Stadium” was part of a complex that also included a baseball stadium and a velodrome. The baseball stadium was so close that its scoreboard almost look like part of the football ground. As keen as I often am to look at stadiums, I didn’t have a look round either of these though.
One thing I did do, that I didn’t manage in Kashiwa due to a poor selection, was buy a scarf. It was quite a small scarf, but was unique – for me at least – in that it contained pockets for ice packs. In Tokyo’s overbearing August heat and humidity, that could be a blessing. It wasn’t that warm this evening though. In fact a baking hot sunny day had been replaced by very grey evening cloud. It was still warm. It just looked like November in Manchester.
One thing very un-Manchester like was the liking of replica shirts. There was barely a soul not wearing orange. The club shop even offered a female football shirt, whose feminine frills around the waist and collar would no doubt raise eyebrows in more PC-conscious parts of the world.
I was one of those few not wearing orange, but being a foreigner, a gaijin, I stood out easily enough anyway, as Omiya, as well as games in the J-League 2nd division, are way off the tourist trail. I don’t think I saw another western face in Omiya, let alone at the ground.
Omiya might be in J2, but it wouldn’t be the world’s biggest gamble to suggest not for too much longer. With 13 games to go, Omiya went into the game a mere 16 points clear of 2nd place, and 18 clear of 3rd place, in the hunt for one of two automatic promotion places up to J1, from where they were relegated the previous season.
If nothing else the game would be one of the more interestingly named match-ups I’d seen. The Ardija part of Omiya’s name is a misspelling of Ardilla, the Spanish word for Squirrel, and the squirrel logo could be seen all across town. Why a squirrel? Err, I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Thespakusatsu’s name is even more convoluted. Kusatsu is an onsen town in the region of Gunma. An onsen is a volcanic spring, where people go to bathe in the blisteringly hot water – in other words a very intense spa. So they are “The Spa, Kusatsu” or Thespakatsu. The Japanese clearly love their English, but not so much that they care in the slightest if they mangle it.
Just like at the Kashiwa v Matsumoto game, both teams would be backed by enthusiastic fans. Thespakusatsu may have been heavily outnumber in the stands, but they did their best to compete in the off the pitch battle. Their players, never looking overawed by the runaway leaders, would do their best on the field too.
For much of the first half my personal enthusiasm for the game was muted by a new experience of warm drizzle, with it never seeming to really able to decide whether it was stopping or getting heavier. Stuck on a resolutely open side of the ground, it wasn’t ideal. At Kashiwa, when there was a hint of rain, a man went round handing out yellow plastic macs to people who otherwise risked getting wet. No such luck here, and my new scarf was put to use keeping my legs and camera dry. At half time, the club shop would see a queue for the official plastic ponchos.
Just before half time, Thespakusatsu defied the odds, and took the lead against the run of play, heading in a set-piece from close range, to the delight, and to some degree surprise, or their travelling fans. Could Omiya be on their way to their 2nd consecutive defeat, after winning eight in a row previously?
If I’d been expecting the away side to sit back now, I was wrong. Instead, they seemed to be intent of making the game safe, and really went for it. Alas for them they were undone in the 57th minute by a run from Omiya’s Serbian international Dragan Mrda, who was brought down for a penalty. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t a spot-kick, but I would suggest Mrda “used his experience” to win it.
Regardless, win it he did, to a curiously muted response from the home crowd, and he took it too, sending the keeper the wrong way to level the match. Again, a strangely quiet cheer greeted the goal, particularly considering how noisy the fans had been in general, and the stage was set for an Omiya winner. No joy though, despite the openness of the game, and a game that probably ought to have had several goals, ended with just two.
The excitement clearly wasn’t enough for one woman sat near me, who sat hunched over, fast asleep. Either that or she’d just bet her house on a home win, and was now waiting in despair for the Yakuza to collect the debt.
Many stayed in their seats, particularly at the home end, where the common post-match linked-hands salute to the fans was replaced here by a respectful team bow. Whether the bow becomes deeper and more humble after a poor result, I couldn’t tell you, but after this slightly disappointing draw, they bowed low enough for eagle-eyed fans in the home end to have been able to read the labels in the backs of their shirts.
It left a walk back to Omiya station via the grounds of the partially illuminated shrine next door – thanks to Buddha for the penalty maybe – and back to the centre, where orange Omiya Ardija flags were almost as numerous as illuminated signs for karaoke bars and other mysterious unreadable nightlife options. Who knows, maybe in one of them you could get a pizza without chopsticks too.