Nara is a city and prefecture known more for its giant Buddha statues and historical sites than for its sporting prowess. Like many in the Kansai region, Nara residents have tended to look towards the two Osaka clubs, Cerezo and Gamba, to get their footballing fix. Yet this could all be about to change thanks to Nara Club’s meteoric rise through the Japanese football pyramid. A journey that started off in the amateur prefectural leagues now sees them just one rung away from Japan’s professional divisions.
They are already able to attract crowds of over 3000 for the biggest games and a debut season in the JFL saw the club narrowly miss out on promotion to J3 at the first attempt. With the beginnings of a professional set up being put into place under the stewardship of head coach, Atsushi Nakamura, it is surely only a matter of time before the club’s lofty ambitions are met.
I arranged to speak to the Nara Club fan leader, Yoshihiro Ikoma, and one of his deputies, Masaya Fukumori, after a home game with promotion rivals Azul Claro Numazu. Despite a one-nil defeat ending all hope of them reaching J3 this season they seemed in good spirits. I got the impression they were already more than happy with a comfortable top half finish following their inaugural season in the top tier of Japanese non-league football, and that promotion this year would have been an unexpected bonus.
As the interview commenced hundreds of local kids who had attended the game spilled onto the pitch for a kickabout supervised by some of the Nara Club substitutes. It's hard to imagine that less than a decade ago this was a club that had no fans at all. Just another amateur team plying its trade in the Nara Prefectural League.
“There was no team for Nara, so I thought it would be fun to have one,” said Yoshihiro, “Nine years ago I met the General Manager, Mr Yabe. He said that he was seriously going to develop the club, so I said OK, you take care of the football side and I will support the team and that is how it all began. I started supporting this team alone when they were still playing in the amateur leagues. Nobody dared to follow them, I just came down on my own with a drum and did it by myself.”
Yoshihiro makes it all sound so simple, but I doubt either he or Mr Yabe could have predicted such a swift ascent. It is clear that both parties have kept to their side of the bargain. Mr Yabe has overseen a transformation that has taken Nara Club from playing on park pitches to becoming fully fledged J3 license holders, while Yoshihiro has built up the club’s fan base significantly, with average attendances rising from one, himself, to over 1,800 for the 2015 season.
For a newly promoted side consolidation at the higher level is often the yardstick for measuring success. So I am surprised when Nara Club head coach Nakamura describes their first season in the JFL as “unsuccessful.” “Of course the aim (in 2015) was promotion”, continued Nakamura, who is in his first managerial role having previously coached in J2 at Yokohama FC and Sagan Tosu. Evidently he has been given a remit to keep the club’s momentum going.
When I put the same question to Yoshihiro and Masaya they were more upbeat about how the season has turned out. “If you think about it, this team has just been promoted from the Kansai league so I can say it is successful”, explained Masaya before adding, “but as a fan I cannot say it is a complete success because we haven’t been promoted again.” Yoshihiro was more cautious in his outlook, perhaps worried about too much too soon, “it is too early for this club to go to J3...the club needs to mature. If we go to J3 now the club will struggle and it could take twenty or thirty years to go to J2.”
As they have just gone up from the Kansai Soccer League, I started to wonder whether the players were ready to step up even further. After all, Nara Club is still only semi-professional. “Everyone has a job after training. All the players”, said Nakamura, “Some players like Schneider...they work as coaches for the Nara Club boys teams.” I asked him if the players can do it in J3. “Of course some of the players can do it. I have trained J.League players and know what is required to play at that level.”
Masaya agreed. When I queried him about 2015's best players he was reluctant to pick out a favourite. “I don’t really want to say, I love everyone. But I would like to mention Taniguchi because he is a new player to the team and plays in a difficult position as a defensive midfielder.” When I questioned him further about who could make the step up he picked out Tomoki Taniguchi again, along with defender Shusuke Sakamoto.
So far no one had discussed the merits of Yasutaka Nomoto, a player that caught my eye in the four games I’d attended. Occupying the right wing back role, he looked strong and tough in the tackle, with a sweet right foot, especially on crosses and set pieces. I mentioned my admiration to Masaya. “He is always good. Last year and the year before last he was always amazing. I think he can play in J3 and J2”, came the response.
As for 2016, is promotion still the aim? “Yes of course”, said Nakamura. Again Masaya agreed with the manager, “we are positive about next season’s results and we still think we can get to the J.League.” I asked Nakamura if this would involve bringing in players of a higher quality. “I hope (to bring in) more good players, more technical players”, he replied, before pointing out that the money was still tight. But with average crowds of over 1,800 Nara Club must be holding on to one of the more competitive budgets in the division, thus enabling Nakamura to get his wish.
If I was to level a criticism at Japanese football, it would be that the atmosphere at some games can be a bit too organised. At times the singing and chanting can lack variety and it doesn’t always coincide with what is happening on the pitch. In this respect Nara Club’s games have been a breath of fresh air. The home fans generate a unique and lively atmosphere, and the hardcore support put a lot of effort into making sure everyone enjoys the game and can get involved. There is even a bit of spontaneity to proceedings, so often a rarity in countries that look towards ultras for making noise.
“In terms of creating songs, sometimes we just make up new songs on the spot because it’s fun”, explained Masaya, “we will make different songs for when we are attacking or defending, or when we want to change the atmosphere of the game.”
He certainly takes the role of sub-leader seriously. “I think the atmosphere we create is an important part of the match day experience, especially for the new fans that come to Nara Club games. We should create a fun atmosphere, not a boring one. When I am leading the chants I try to think about how the new fans will feel.”
There is an obvious emphasis on welcoming everyone at the game into the Nara Club fold and during the last home game of the season versus Kagoshima United I witnessed many of the hardcore support inviting fellow fans into the singing section. When I put forward the notion that Masaya is helping to lead a group of ultras his answer was short and sweet, “No, everyone is welcome. I hope eventually every Nara fan can be a Nara ultra.”
As expected, the fans efforts are well received by the players and management. “Of course, every time the supporters make the songs...it gives us the power to win”, Nakamura enthused, “every time they cheer, it’s positive, positive cheering, nothing negative. It is very comforting for us. Of course we must win and have a good game for the supporters.”
Where does all this positivity come from? I got the impression it could be linked to fan leader Yoshihiro’s vision to give the people of Nara something of their own to shout about. “Nara has the highest proportion of people in Japan who go to work or study outside of the prefecture, they go to Osaka or Kyoto to play, they don’t stay here. Personally, I went to high school in Osaka and have worked in Kyoto and now Osaka”, he explained, “I wanted to change this culture. Nara people didn’t have a proper identity. I thought it would be fun to develop the sports culture in Nara. To make something Nara people can be proud of.”
“It is a good picture I think looking to the future”, said Nakamura when I asked him about Nara Club’s fortunes five or ten years down the line. “At the moment it is just a dream. To become a reality we must get promotion to J3 or J2 to make the people in Nara prefecture become interested in our club, so maybe be the politicians will move-in to help us.” It was a notion shared by Yoshihiro who pointed out that “before we start thinking about five or ten years later, the local people and government need to catch up and take notice of the current situation.”
If they do reach the promised land of the J.League, Nakamura is certain that the club will continue to grow and look towards turning fully professional. “We must gather crowds of 10,000 supporters”, he exclaimed, “now it is impossible but if we get to the J.League then maybe. I think we get good crowds for the JFL.” I continued to quiz him about how else the club could develop, and he told me about a desire to implement a proper youth team and about his wish for Nara Prefecture to make a purpose built football stadium.
And what about the future for Nara Club’s passionate fan base? “We have 3,000 fans so I am happy”, said Yoshihiro, “now there are more keen supporters of Nara Club that can continue to lead and develop our fan culture so I am satisfied.” And what about Nara Club’s original fan? “A supporters life changes too”, he confided, “when I was young I could do what I want, but now I’ve got a family. Now I can just go to the games and play with my kids.”
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Thanks to Asuka Horisaka for translating the fan interviews and to Yuue for arranging them.