We hope to be able to take readers of this site a bit deeper into the supporter experience of Japanese football. Just to give you a flavour of what it can be like (although clubs are all different, of course) this is what happened when @sushi_football went to his beloved FC Gifu’s opening home game of the season.
12:00 – On the bus
I like to take public transport to games in Gifu. It gives me a chance to relax and listen to either music or podcasts – today’s choice was a shuffle mix of my music, but Radiohead’s “Let Down” should really have been a forewarning of what was to come. Other songs to come up on the trip of around 25 minutes included “Hooligan” by Embrace, and “Electric Dreams” by The Human League (and, hopefully, you can see I haven’t edited that list to make it sound cool).
12:30 – At the stadium
Given the 4pm kick off, it must seem a bit early to rock up. But given that it is the first home game of the season, I wanted to get a look at the stadium and its improvements. The seating in the back stand look pretty good, and the toilets, well the toilets are pretty nice! I wander around the pitch to get myself familiar with it again. I don’t know if this is the same at other grounds, but FC Gifu’s youth players help set up the pitch and stadium. They put up the goalposts, help the opposition supporters hang their banners and help with the advertising hoardings. I wonder if it is the same elsewhere.
After going round the pitch, I make my way into the stands. At this time, the Gifu supporters are decorating the home end. It is a feature of the J.League that the stadia are adorned with banners, but it takes a lot of effort to put them up before games and take down after. The Gifu supporters bring theirs in suitcases and it takes a good 30 minutes to hang them all.
1:30 – Lunch
One thing that Japanese do like, is food. And at FC Gifu, supporters are spoilt for choice. My personal choice on this particular afternoon was the “Choripan” – Chorizo sausage in French bread with salsa sauce. B-E-A-utiful. And a Hida-beef croquette. Whilst in the queue, because food isn’t worth getting unless you queue for sometime to get it, I got the chance to speak to lots of my FC Gifu friends. They all come up to me and say “We are looking forward to this year!” I’m full, so it is time for me to head back into the stadium.
2:00 – Teams announced
In the J.League, teams are announced two hours prior to kick off. It seems they are released simultaneously to media at the stadium, and to social media (just because I always seem to see the starting XI on Twitter very quickly). FC Gifu also release their line-up via LINE, a social messaging system which is popular in Japan. I look at this line up today, and I’m taken aback. I suspected there would be changes, but to start a university graduate up front in Ryo Takiya, and to drop Iwase, Nogaito, Aoki, Leonardo Rocha and Karube stunned me a bit. When I look at the team, I’m trying to figure out what kind of formation they’re going play, but I struggle. In the press room, there are more than a few raised eyebrows.
3:00 – Warming up
The goalkeepers come out first. And it is a rule that before they start warming up, this is not just GKs but all players, they go to their supporters and bow in front of them. As far as Gifu are concerned William Popp and Satoshi Tokizawa appear around fifteen minutes before the rest of the team come out and start their prep.
3:45 – Pre-match ceremony
In a repeat of last season, some actors from the recreation of the battle of Sekigahara signal the start of the season by setting off cannons in front of the main stand.
After this, the players come out and go through the pre-match ritual of the captains meeting and greeting the match sponsor and getting flowers (or something else – depending on the sponsor. We’ve had ham, beer and bread given to the captains in the past). After the sponsor, the traditional “kick-in” where someone kicks the match ball to the referee. Today I’m actually very happy because the kids that are kicking the ball to the referee are the children of a friend of mine. I’m delighted when it all goes to plan. It was a good pass as well.
At this time, I’m actually at the other side of the pitch because I want to take a picture of Gifu’s “Big flag” – the flag that supporters have made.
4:00 – Kick off
The first half kicks off and I take my place down by the corner flag at the end Gifu are attacking. That turns out to be a great/poor decision (depending on your view) because four goals went in at the other end as Consadole Sapporo run absolute riot against a disorganized and disheveled Gifu “unit”. After the third and fourth goals I just turn to the cameraman sat next to me and we share a resigned look. I manage to get a couple of shots of Keiji Takachi taking a corner, but Gifu rarely attacked, so I couldn’t get many shots.
4:45 – Half time
I head to the food stands again, the dire stuff served up on the pitch has made me hungry. I opt for yet more carbohydrates in the form of long french fries and a bottle of the Japanese energy drink Aquarius. I decide that I’m not going down by the pitch for the second half, so I stand behind the goal.
5:05 – Second half
The Gifu supporters, who let’s not forget have seen some pretty rubbish stuff at home before, keep jumping and singing. It really is a sight to behold. They continue in unison, but as the game gets deeper in, the strains of exasperation and anger start to creep in. Every misplaced pass is met with groans and shouts. Somewhat weirdly, around the eighty minute mark the Gifu supporters step up another couple of gears and try to will the ball into the net, just so that they can take something home with them. But, despite the efforts of Leo Mineiro and Leonardo Rocha, Gifu don’t really trouble Sapporo’s keeper and the game ends as it did at half time, a four nil defeat.
The players, in another very Japanese thing, come to the supporters to bow in front of them to say thank you. Suffice to say, this didn’t really go over very well and some of the supporters let them know exactly what they thought of that performance. The players look drained, physically and mentally. I sense that this could be a watershed moment.
6:20 – Press room
“This should be interesting” I said to a reporter I know. “Probably. I want to hear how he justifies that” the reporter replies.
But before Ruy Ramos does come in and give his explanation, victorious Consadole Sapporo coach Shuhei Yomoda comes in to give his view of the game. “First of all, I’d like to thank all the supporters that came today. We’ve had two away games in a row and we understand the sacrifice they make.” Some of the reporters from Hokkaido ask questions, but he sticks to very mundane responses and is finished in around 7-8 minutes.
He leaves, and Ramos enters. “Questions” he says. Quite a few questions come at him.
- “We trained well this week, but after 20 seconds we concede a chance and our confidence just drained. It was like ‘Here we go again’ and it just spiraled from there.”
- “It is a long season. We’ve only played two games but I really want to get the first win on the board.”
- “I have to decide on the formation for next week. 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. We tightened up a bit in the second half so that would be something to look at.”
But not a lot that justified this performance. No questions about training routines or what the defence works on in training. If my Japanese was better, I would ask. The guy sat next to me says “He needs to coach the basics. That’s what he needs to do. The very basic stuff.” I couldn’t agree more.
7:00 – Go home
I trudge back to the bus stop, listening to music and checking the reaction on Twitter to the games that were played today. On the bus I check my photos, but to be honest there aren’t many good ones. The bus home is spent thinking about what transpired in the first half, and what is going to be talked about tomorrow. But that can wait, I have to decide my post match meal. Something heavy and oily. Something that will make me sleep very early……