As a long-time connoisseur of mediocrity in the world's favourite game, my choice of Sunday afternoon entertainment was always likely to be several notches lower on the quality scale. Still, it's not everyday you get the chance to see the second round of games in the prefectural qualifying tournament for the 22nd All-Japan Club Football Championships, which is a bit like the FA Vase could be if it was crammed into eight weekends, enjoyed virtually zero coverage and had its semi final played in front of a handful of people on an Olympic hockey field.
The Kanagawa competition gathers together heavyweights like Enoshima Flipper, FC Socios and ninth-tier Azul Yuri, a team with no online presence besides the listings of their fixtures of the site of the Kanagawa Prefectural League. Their opponents were FC Atsugi, one division higher and hailing from a town whose decidedly minor claim to fame is as the birthplace of Teruyuki Moniwa, a second-half substitute in a 2006 World Cup game when the first choice defender got cramp in both thighs. The two sides met on a pitch that had been funded as a legacy project of the 2002 tournament and is now between a petrol station and an overhead railway line, limbering up to sweeping views of electricity pylons and the ripe smell of manure from a vegetable plot that backed on to a graveyard.
There were already a few dozen spectators perched uncomfortably on concrete blocks, facing a line of diggers and a convenience store stripped of almost all its edible goods. A couple pushed a dog around the perimeter in a custom-built pram and three women sheltered under parasols despite the absence of either direct sunlight or rain. Some felled tree trunks and the clubhouse fire escape completed the seating, making the end effect something like Thornaby without the charm or rustic appeal. Azul's coach was dressed for success in a salaryman's suit, his tactics scrawled on a notebook and a dozen Pocari Sweat bottles dotted around his feet. His opposite number prowled the touchline in a tank top, growling instructions at his team. Shortly after kick-off half the crowd departed with transparent bags and surgical masks to clear away leaves behind the goal, where the next two teams to use the pitch were attempting their passing drills beside a cabbage patch and an extra set of posts. It took another ten minutes before Azul were able to field an entire team of their own, their eleventh man bowing apologetically while hurriedly swapping a pair of white Crocs for bright yellow boots.
Azul surprised even themselves when they scored early in the second half, then staggeringly levelled with a minute left to play and Atsugi lingering on the ball perilously close to their own goal. There was no messing about with extra time while the next teams waited and it cost £2 an hour to park your car, so it was straight into a penalty shoot-out at the vending machine end. The first four were placed into corners, the fifth and sixth straight into the goalkeepers' hands. Atsugi scored their next two, Azul could only clank the post. When the winning penalty hit the net, there were a few seconds of awkward silence before everyone lined up, bowed towards the clubhouse and then walked off the pitch.
Date: Sunday June 7th