15 November ~ On November 3 I went to my first major game in Japan, the final of the Nabisco Cup – the equivalent of the League Cup – played out between Sanfreece Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata at Tokyo's National Stadium. In stark contrast to most domestic games, it was a near sell-out. Passionate fans who'd made long journeys from Hiroshima and Iwata were joined by Tokyoite football fans, like me and my girlfriend, for what proved to be some very entertaining football. However, the game will stick in our memories, not for the football played, but for the way it was watched.
Watching football in Japan could be a dream for an amateur anthropologist, as many stereotypically Japanese characteristics were on display at the final. Poor decisions by authority figures (the referee and linesmen) were greeted with silent acceptance by the respectful crowd. Support behind the goals was very loud and highly organised but fans in the main stand were eerily silent, courteously observing the preference of those around them for a quieter atmosphere, in the same way Tokyo commuters do on trains.
At games in England my girlfriend is, of course, usually in a (albeit growing) female minority. This is definitely not the case in Japan, where the gender mix behind the goals is about 50/50 and elsewhere more women than men can be seen. Unlike many social realms here, all-male groups at games are rare but plenty of young and even middle-aged women watch together. Matches are also popular dating spots, with admission similarly priced to cinema tickets. And a lot of the guys seem to be dragged along by far more enthusiastic girlfriends. The feminisation of football in Japan is also visible in the press area, where at least 25 per cent of the reporters at the game were women.
Another contrast with football in England was the way the final was commercialised. Going to this year's Carling Cup final with Villa, I was shocked that the sponsor thought charging over £4 for a pint of swill was a good way to promote their brand. All fans arriving at the game were greeted with complimentary snacks from the sponsors and a match programme. Though cynically I couldn't help thinking they missed a trick, leaving a sports event without feeling exploited was very refreshing. The underdogs Hiroshima almost won in regular time, but Iwata equalised to make it 2-2 with a few minutes left, and then pulled 4-2 ahead in extra time before a fantastic free-kick from Japan international Tomoaki Makino gave Sanfreece renewed hope. The eventual Man of the Match, Ryoichi Maeda, ensured the 5-3 win for Jubilo with his second goal – a neat chip – and there was final excitement as Sanfreece's Makino missed a penalty in the last minute of extra time.
Despite the goal-fest, I'll remember the game for how distinctly Japanese/non-English it was. Amazingly, the crowd reacted more loudly to video replays of the goals and other key moments than to the actual events themselves. The crowd had specific songs for scoring a goal and specific songs for conceding one. They even all followed specific movements (everyone swinging scarves around their heads) for winning corners. At the end, Man of the Match Maeda was presented with a large cheque by the sponsors. Despite being an international, his salary would pale in comparison to stars in England, so you could feel a little happy for him. But imagine seeing one of our Premier League stars receive their performance bonuses on the pitch after a game – surely blanking the thought of these large sums from your mind is the only way fans of England's top clubs can continue to see any "magic" in our game.
Pound-to-yen exchange rates don't favour a trip to Japan for football tourism right now. A pint costs around £7. But to anyone rich enough, I'd strongly recommend the visit. If football is an international language, it's still spoken with a very distinct accent in Japan. Simon Cotterill