A quacking match
Even after more than ten years living in Japan, there are times when the people here take me completely by surprise.
On Saturday, I went to a J-League match between the Yokohama F. Marinos and Osaka Cerezo (Don’t get me started on the ridiculous names of football teams here – what crackpot came up with Kyoto Purple Sanga!?) at Nissan Stadium, the venue of the 2002 World Cup final.
Standing behind the goal with the home supporters – fans that stand and sing throughout the game are pigeon-holed as “supporters,” those that sit and watch events unfold are “fans” – I found the action on the terraces far more interesting than the game being played out below.
A football "supporter"
The supporters spent the entire game on their feet belting out chants from a song sheet printed on the back of a glossy club brochure. While the songs, led by a rotund longhair with a megaphone, were passionate, everything seemed – much like Japanese society – to be orderly and controlled. But what left the deepest impression on me was the lack of crowd reaction to proceedings on the pitch.
The songs are orchestrated so that the supporters sing (and jump up and down) for about five minutes, before they get a minute’s respite. While the crowd actually responded to the game in these breaks, anything the players do during the hymns – one sign said “F. Marinos – The Religion” – is largely ignored.
Who ever said football was just about image?
During the first half, the Marinos had the upper hand without creating many chances. They won a handful of corners and free kicks in dangerous positions, but the crowd blanked these set pieces and carried on with their anthems.
And they kept on singing.
Towards the end of the first period, an Osaka midfielder made a rash challenge that earned him an early bath. The player had the temerity to get sent off midsong. The home supporters stuck to their task of singing and I didn’t hear a single person react, be it a boo or a cheer. A sending off is a game-changing moment that would transform any European stadium into a cauldron, but here the show just went on and the sinners name was quietly removed from the Osaka team sheet on the scoreboard.
Time for an early bath
The half ended at 0-0. A dull first period dominated by the home side without them creating too many actual chances. It seemed as if half the stadium seemed to ponder the game, or more likely another plastic beaker of beer, with a half-time smoke at the back of the stand.
Like clockwork, the fans started their synchronized crooning as Yokohama kicked off the second half. You couldn’t tell, but they must have been hoping their favourites could make the most of their numerical advantage.
The songs continued. Yokohama pressed forward again and again, the fans only reacting with boos whenever Cerezo gained possession – in the quiet periods between chants, of course.
As the match progressed, the singing did seem to become more fevered, with the Marinos faithful ever more desperate for the one goal that would vanquish their mid-table foes.
Enter the saviour - Shunsuke Nakamura of Celtic fame. Nakamura came on after about 80 minutes - he'd picked up an injury on international duty a few days earlier. A free-kick opportunity on the right just outside the box – a perfect position for the left-footer to repeat his heroics at Old Trafford a few years back. His feeble shot hit the wall and the crowd just keep on singing, barely gasping with exasperation.
The fourth official indicated there would be four minutes of stoppage time. It still felt like a party in the stands despite the disappointing score line. The supporters urge the team forward, “Koi, Koi…Koi, Koi, Koi.” But it all comes to nothing and the referee blows his whistle three times to signify an end to proceedings.
One trait of the Japanese people is their tolerance and acceptance of things they are unhappy about – call it passivism if you like. But as the final whistle was blown, the spectators bellowed jeers at their own players, who, in my view, had performed to the best of their abilities. This chorus of boos and shouts of derision came in stark contrast to the good natured and passionate support I’d witnessed over the past two hours. The players did their obligatory lap of the pitch, but more than one head was bowed as the team half-heartedly clapped the catcalling spectators.
The natives were restless, a scuffle broke out behind the stand (rare, but not unknown in Japan) between the “chief” supporter and some of his cronies - completely tipping the afternoon’s congeniality on its head.
I can understand a frustrated crowd displaying their displeasure at a below-par performance, but in the dozens of games I’ve seen back in England, Turkey and here, the crowd has always shown its disgruntlement during the match. Never before have I witnessed such an abrupt shift in a crowd’s mood – something that lingers with my wife, who was at her first ever game of football.