If you've ever wondered what British football terraces were like, try riding a Tokyo train between the hours of 7.30 and 9am. I start my journey to work on the outskirts of Yokohama, a city of three million people, and end in Shibuya, a station used by roughly the same number of passengers every single weekday. TV screens loop adverts for Nikon cameras, bank products and non-alcoholic beer. There's the melodic roar of station announcements ("Mamonaku san-ban-sen ni Shibuya-yuki ga mairimas"), the thrill of finding yourself in an empty inch of space, the black-suited crowd swaying into each other between stops and surging forward the moment the doors ping open.
Jiyugaoka Station is the worst of them all, a place where no-one alights and rank after rank of salarymen push and drag themselves aboard. Last week I watched with wry amusement a bloke in a Chelsea scarf shove his way through the doors, an office worker simultaneously getting his legs in a tangle and falling to the platform, grimacing silently before stoically hobbling away. Today it's where I get off, hurrying down a pair of escalators, hurtling across a bridge and bounding through a tunnel in my haste to make a change of trains for the riverside playing fields of Komazawa University, alma mater of several J-League players and the coach of Vietnam's national team. A week since experiencing the semi-rarefied heights of the Japanese third tier, I'm back among the obscurer corners of the capital city's football scene, taking in the second division of the amateur Tokyo Soccer League, a competition where kick off times range right across the weekend from 9am on Saturday mornings to after dark on Sunday nights, admission charges are unheard of and the handful of spectators are usually relatives, substitutes or people hanging around to use the pitch.
Nominally, the home side are Tokyo Bay FC, celebrating a tenth birthday with 300 players and a renewed focus "on synergy creation", their blue and grey kits carefully chosen to reflect "water, downtown buildings and the transportation network" of a city centre base in Shinagawa. Their opponents are GIOCO Setagaya, ambitious suburban cognoscenti who've subtitled their sparse website 'The J-League Team' five promotions too soon. I arrive just after kick off, having squandered the time saved in the station by getting lost in a newly opened shopping plaza. "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I politely ask a pair of old ladies, who shake heads and wave hands in vigorous unison before realising I'm still talking in a form of Japanese. I'm bowed through the gates by a uniformed guard as Setagaya get the game underway; the team staff recline on park benches, the spectators make do with a kerb along the touchline and the rectangle of grass inside a shot put net.
Ten minutes in, the away side literally stroll into a lead when the Tokyo Bay goalkeeper mistimes a rush off his line, a forward passing the ball through his legs before a second taps in to the unguarded net. "Woooah," the spectators purr appreciatively as the scorer jogs back to halfway. It's soon apparent that Bay are hopelessly outclassed, their midfielders scurrying about to regain possession before wastefully punting the ball forward like mortar shells into no man's land. Setagaya help out by playing everything down the left, the home defence clinging to the centre with all the grim desperation of a New Labour MP. When half-time comes, they retreat exhausted to the shade under a classroom block, the coach's instructions echoing in angry bursts across the pitch. Setagaya stand by the touchline, their trainer gently remonstrating while spectators stretch, lace up boots or slink off to the adjoining rugby pitch for a kickaround.
The second half is disappointingly flat, Bay making an almighty hash of two free kicks before Setagaya score again from a corner and the crowd start pedalling home. Pass completion and urgency slump to a level somewhere between an end-of-season England friendly and Newcastle United from late-January to May; GIOCO smash the rusting crossbar, score a third and then stroke the ball around the centre circle while the tiring Bay players toil in the heat of an April afternoon. Their coach stands up, leaves his tactics board by a corner flag and stares across the river. "We fought well," the match report concludes, "but hope for better luck next weekend."
Date: Sunday April 26th 2015