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Groundhopping: Saitama Stadium 2002

Saturday 6th January 2018

My last adventure to the Ajinomoto was nice, but international football just didn’t offer the same level of excitement that I’m accustomed to with the club game. Since moving to Japan, I’ve undoubtedly picked a side to follow here. Yokohama F. Marinos are my boys and I was raring to go to the Saitama Stadium for the big cup final day – as they took on Cerezo Osaka.

Like any 26-year-old westerner, waking up on New Year’s Day was challenging. (I’ve since come to regret my rate of alcohol consumption and have vowed to lower it for the new year. Four days in, not a drop, go me) Although this year, as much as I wanted to sit in bed all day and watch DVDs, I had a ticket for the football. It was that excitement for the game that spurred me out of bed and onto two-hour commute to the ground – in the freezing cold I might add.

Urawamisono is the closest train station to the ground, but that’s still a good 10-minute walk to the ground. Although the station itself is a treat for any football fan. The inside is completely kitted out in Urawa Red Diamonds décor, as the stadium serves as their home ground. Although it was slightly strange to see no respective supporters nearby, as Urawa failed to advance to the final.

After completely destroying some street vendor fried chicken in an attempt to cure my hangover, I reached the entrance to the ground. I posed for the obligatory picture outside the ground and then looked for my seat – again receiving the complimentary programme after successful inspection of my ticket.

It took some time to navigate around the stadium to my seat, I could hear the Yokohama lot singing their songs and I joined in from outside. As I stepped in at my corresponding gate, words just do not do my feelings justice. I had booked tickets for the Cerezo Osaka end. I was decked out with the old school Marinos kit, horn and socks. I had to sit with the enemy, the team that’s had it all their own way this year.

I reluctantly buttoned up my denim jack as the stadium security officer couldn’t provide me with a move to the Yokohama stand. My bad, all my fault. A minor sulk and I was okay. Eight minutes in, however, I was the only one smiling on this side of the stadium. I made no friends there as I cheered: “YES” as Sho Ito scored the opening goal in the eighth minute. Yokohama in front, I was very happy, the biggest source of happiness from the whole Cerezo section in fact. Marinos continued to pile on the pressure throughout the first half as Quenten Martinus lit the pitch up with his speed and intrigue balls forward. He was probably the best player on the pitch for the first 45 minutes. Although the rest of the team were wasteful and didn’t put away any further chances. The opposition fans were stunned, their team was so limp – the fans had very little to get behind.

It was at halftime that I rued my ticket selection even more. I had just had to witness my fellow supporters have the time of their life, jumping, singing and making more noise than the opposition. Whilst I was stuck waiting in line for noodles with a dreary set of pink-clad chaps. I probably wasn’t embracing the situation – but such is my love for my newly acquired club. A good noodle though by all accounts. Still not a pie, but a flavoursome noodle.

In the build-up to the game, I told my work colleagues, clients and housemates that I’d be visiting the Saitama Stadium for the game. Many of which hold the ground in high esteem; with the general theme that it’s one of, if not the best, place to watch football in Japan. After the first half, it was hard to disagree. A packed crowd of 42,200+ made for a real atmosphere for the match. The structure is sleek and befitting of the tournament was created for. I can’t imagine there’s a bad seat in the house given the design. My only critique would be that it’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing to do around it. But, hey, football is enough for me.

The second half started and after the aforementioned noodle, I was ready for another period of a dominant Yokohama which would surely go on to win the cup… Ah, yes. Didn’t really happen. Yoon Jong-Hwan must be a real motivator. The way that Cerezo, his team, came out… was unplayable. They played with speed, power and took the Marinos by storm.

Yamamura scored within 20 minutes of the restart, and they could have finished it within the 90 minutes. Nakazawa, or Bomber; if you’re a fan, kept Yokohama in the game. He snuffed the strikers out countless times – although in vain, he only prolonged the torture as the game went to extra time.

Mizunuma scored in the first five minutes of extra time. Cerezo then sat back and defended the cup by parking the bus, more or less on the pitch – with the rear on the presentation stage. Yokohama’s foreign players like Martinus and the substitute, Vieira vented their frustration at the opposition and referee because Cerezo’s players were taking their time for everything. The Portuguese forward even attempted a bicycle kick from the corner but missed. The passion for the club evident, the desire to win very strong as well. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to tie the game and take it to penalties. With the final whistle, the opposition had won, cheers all around me. I left immediately, I wasn’t watching them lift a trophy.

Should you want to watch them lift a trophy, you can do just that and highlights of the game in the video above. Not bitter, at all.

A good day out at an exceptional Japanese stadium with a rich but short history. After all, Sol Campbell scored the first international goal at the ground! What an honour bestowed upon on the pitch! Marinos supporters remained noisier throughout the contest despite dropping the lead and the trophy, a good day for unity amongst the fans – even if it was a darker day in terms of results. I embarked on my trip back home in a pretty poor spirit: losing in the final, still a bit hungover at the time – not a good day at the time. Now, in retrospect – an excellent ground with a vibe to match, decent food and a good game, even if we lost. I’d like to visit the ground again, although leave with a better result next time.

Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 

Total articles: 295

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