Futuristic stadia, heated toilet seats, bleached blond players driving Nissan GTR’s, trips to away games in bullet trains….these aren’t the kind of things you’d find in Japan’s unheralded, yet thriving, regional football leagues. Michael Hudson, aka the accidental groundhopper & @DolphinHotel, takes us on a whistlestop tour of the brilliant yet bizarre world of regional league football – Greater Tokyo style.
I’d just been telling someone about a trip to see Toshiba Fuchu play fellow western Tokyo side Ome FC on the fourth pitch of the Saitama Stadium complex. “It was the semi-final of the Tokyo League Division Two Cup,” I explained. “And there were 21 spectators, one dog, a suitcase on wheels and a child with a balloon cutlass.” There was a pause. “How do you find out about these games?” he asked. “And why?”
Truth be told, it was a bit hard to explain: the Prefectural Leagues are strange and obscure territory for anybody more accustomed to levels J1 to 3. But among the many things to like about lower-league football in Japan, I’d particularly nominate the following: it’s almost always free to watch, the universally relaxed approach to alcohol and food consumption leaves you free to turn up with your own carrier bag of treats, kick-offs are staggered from Saturday morning to Sunday night, meaning there is almost always a game on somewhere in the capital city at any time of the weekend, and the venues themselves, while seldom little more than artificial pitches with permanent seating for a few dozen relatives or groundhopping masochists, are often in or near places of genuine interest. On one weekend last July, for example, I had the option of a double header on two grounds divided by the runway at Chofu Airport, a match within a goalkick of the water at Tokyo Bay, two fixtures outside 2002 World Cup stadia or a second trip to see Vonds Ichihara – the first part of their name an unlikely portmanteau of the words ‘victory’ and ‘bonds’ – play at a seaside ground formerly used by JEF United. In the event, I plumped for the headquarters of the Kanagawa Prefectural FA, which had sweeping views of an overhead railway line, electricity pylons and the ripe ordure of animal droppings from an adjacent vegetable plot. As the opening game went to a penalty shoot-out, the two teams who were waiting their turn went through passing drills by a cabbage patch in which half the original crowd had been dispatched to pick up fallen leaves.
As a long-time connoisseur of the unfamiliar and offbeat, I love the stories behind the people as well as the places. Take Jorge Ortega, founder and head coach of Kanagawa League’s Esperanza FC. Capped once by Argentina, where he was unlucky to miss out on the final squad for the 1990 World Cup, Ortega worked as an academy coach at Boca Juniors before relocating to Japan, where he can now be found barking instructions out in two languages by the touchline of various seventh-tier pitches. Or Yōichi Takahashi, Captain Tsubasa creator and president of the supporters’ organisation at Nankatsu SC, named in honour of Tsubasa’s high school team and currently swatting aside all-comers in the lower divisions of the Tokyo League. The knock-out competitions are just as weird and wonderful. If the early-season Tokyo Society Soccer Championship – contested over 11 days by 60 teams on eight pitches dotted about the capital city – doesn’t grab you, there’s always the All-Japan Club Football Championship, which is crammed into eight weekends, receives virtually zero media coverage and has its semi-final played in front of a handful of people on an Olympic hockey field from the 1964 games.
For the uninitiated, the best source of information is the Japanese-language tokyofootball.com, which publishes complete lists of non-J.League fixtures and results either side of the weekend as well as a handy online map of every ground used by the Tokyo League’s 129 teams – 15 in the top-flight, three groups of 14 in the second, and 72 more, split into six parallel groups, in Division Three. Now in its 50th year, the Tokyo League was home to Machida Zelvia between 1991 and 2006 and currently occupies the 7th, 8th and 9th tiers of Japanese football, its clubs needing to navigate through two divisions of the regional Kanto Soccer League and then the countrywide JFL before they’d be able to join follow Machida’s route to the J.League.
Outside the capital, the Kanagawa Prefectural League counted Sagamihara SC among its member clubs as recently as 2011. Its website (http://www.kanagawa-fa.gr.jp/syakaijin/) performs a similar function to tokyofootball.com, with fixtures updated at the start of each month. Like the Tokyo League, the competition is divided into three divisions, the 12-team top-flight home to the likes of Esperanza, YSCC Reserves and GEO X-FC, formed as recently as 2012 but already “seriously aimed at the JFL”.
I saw GEO X play Yokohama GSFC Cobras in what proved to be my last prefectural league game before leaving Japan. Several dozen schoolchildren shrieked team names into plastic megaphones as GEO – sixteen goals against and just one victory from their previous six matches – smacked their winning goal with only seconds left to play. “Amazing! Amazing!” a spectator applauded, as bodies converged on the scorer from all corners of the pitch. The quality might not always be the highest, but Kanto’s lower tiers are a huge amount of fun.
Michael’s blog is one of the best around and, as noted before, more from him can found via Twitter at @dolphinhotel