It registers on the radar of football fans the world over, but how many of us have really let Japan's J-League get under our skin? That's exactly what has happened to our next correspondent. Welcome to IBWM, Barry Valder.
“Shimizu Impulse?” It was an inauspicious start to my career as a J. League supporter, getting my new team’s name wrong. “No, Shimizu S-Pulse” my fellow exiled Brit corrected me. “Fair enough, but what the hell’s an S-Pulse?” “No idea, mate.”
I’m sure like most of you would, having moved abroad, the first thing I did was seek out my new local team. You know, just something to fill in the Saturday afternoons while you’re separated from your “proper” team. What followed wasn’t really part of the plan. I’m now a fanatical Shimizu S-Pulse supporter of seven years standing, the last three as a season ticket holder. My initial plan of a year in Japan is now pushing towards a decade, and this, some may say as sad as it is, is down in no small part that team in bright orange – Shimizu S-Pulse.
Think of the J. League, and, if you’re Italian or Brazilian, you may automatically think of Jubilo Iwata or maybe Toto Schillaci and Dunga, who helped the club to several titles in the late 1990s. The Argentines amongst you might think of my very own S-Pulse, what with Ossie Ardiles having been in charge during one of the clubs’ most successful spells. As an Englishman, I always thought of Gary Linker running around in a garish red and yellow shirt for Nagoya Grampus Eight.
The image I had of the Japanese football – that of ageing the Western stars picking up a fat pay check in their twilight years – is, I found out, pretty outdated. But it’s an opinion I’ve found can endure when talking to friends back home. The reality is few teams if any can currently afford the inflated wages demanded by your ready-to-retire superstars.
The biggest names in the J. League are the returning heroes from abroad. Shinseki Nakamura has single-handedly added hundreds to the average Yokohama Merinos gate, and Shinji Ono has shifted merchandise to rival that of any overseas star since moving back to Japan from Germany. Should he also return home one day, you can bet whichever team Keisuke Honda joins will rake in millions off his merchandising appeal.
The J. League soon passed beyond its initial boom years with things reaching a low in the late 1990s. The bust after the boom even saw one team unceremoniously “merged” with another, (ask any fan – Yokohama Flügels was dissolved), but things have recovered, and the current league is operating on a solid business plan, within the current financial realities.
I knew none of this in April 2004 when making my way to S-Pulse’s atmospheric Nihondaira Stadium for the first time. My images of former Seria A and Premier League names flooding the pitch were soon blasted out the water, but as it turned out, my first J. League game was an absolute cracker. Shimizu S-Pulse v Urawa Red Diamonds. 2-0 down at half time? No worries – S-Pulse rode out triumphant 4-3 winners. The boys in orange staged a fightback after which it would have been impossible not to fall in love with them. No matter that in my next game I sat through a typhoon only to witness an 86th minute winner for the opposition. The seeds of a love affair had been planted in that seven goal thriller.
As I later learnt, Shimizu never had been one of the big players at bringing in foreign stars. Unlike the other nine of the J. League’s original ten clubs, S-Pulse was not an ex-company team turned professional. This meant not having the clout of a multinational corporations’ backing. Mitsubishi? Nissan? Yamaha? Toyota? All spawned readymade teams for the new pro league, complete with multimillion yen backers. S-Pulse was established by local companies and people, never enjoying quite the same financial advantages.
After my baptism in 2004, for the next few years I would drag not-really-interested friends up to Nihondaira most home weekends and enjoy the sunshine, beer and football. The season runs March to December meaning long summer evenings behind the goal with a six pack. After discovering it was perfectly acceptable to bring your own drinks in, I suddenly started arriving earlier and earlier. The couple of hours before a game you’d normally spend down the pub got transplanted to a plastic sheet inside the stand with a pack of cards and cool box.
What was always a fairly well controlled habit has since 2008 exploded into a full-blown obsession. The regularly updated blog and the books and t-shirts you see on it have all come about fairly recently. Don’t blame me – blame the hospitality of one particular young feller named Takumi. I’d always had curious locals chat to me at games, ask why I watched S-Pulse and the like, but in April 2008, me and my friends were invited to watch a game with a group of fans sat nearby. They were some of the nicest people I’ve met in Japan, and to cut a long story short, we’re now a gang of around twenty mates who call ourselves the UK Ultras. We fly our flag all over the country (yes, we have a flag) and have a bloody good laugh while we’re at it.
The idea of our own ultras troop was always very tongue in cheek, and what really is just a bit (well actually, a lot) of fun, does have a serious edge. Being let into, and made a part of, a regular group of supporters meant my affiliation for S-Pulse strengthened beyond anything that went before. Seven years ago I’d never have thought my level of support for my J team would be rivalling that of my native Brighton and Hove Albion. Thankfully it’s fairly safe to say I’ll never have to choose between the two. Both teams would have to make the Club World Cup the same year. Not so likely.
The longer I stay in Japan, the more I travel the country watching S-Pulse, the stronger my affinity to the club, and in turn, my home city, becomes. Trekking four hundred miles to Hiroshima to stand and shout for Shimizu is these days as much about representing my home town as it is supporting the team. It’s become the same deal as following my League 1 team around England. The same but different.
The J. League is worlds apart from football in England. The fans are different. Very different. Yes, they do spent the whole 90 minutes singing, not even breaking stride the moment they concede a goal.. Yes, there is a lot of arm waving and scarf twirling, and yes there is a far greater mix of kids and old women in the crowd. Since the league started up in 1992, a lot has happened, and what you may imagine to be the aging stars retirement home set-up couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a competitive league with good native players. Japan didn’t reach the last 16 in South Africa by luck.
So I’m now left with the dilemma of having to one day leave my new team or never regularly watch my old team again. You can see the bind I’m in. But for now I’m just enjoy the home and away days in one of the most colourful leagues around and one maybe, just maybe, see Shimizu claim their first J. league title. So how about the mighty oranges this year? Cup semi final heartbreak and a league title challenge that faulted right as things starting looking promising? A manager who has just stepped down after the pressure of another trophy less year proved too much? Pretty much football as usual then. Just in Japan.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, an S-Pulse is the S from Soccer, Supporter and Shimizu, and the Pulse is the Pulse of the city beating to the rhythm of exciting football. Simple.
If you would like to read more from Barry, please visit the exceptional www.ukultras.co.uk