Kashima: Realising a Subbuteo dream

A table top game introduced me to Kashima Antlers. Twenty five years later, I finally put a face to a name

Date: Wednesday, April 25th, 2018  
Location: Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture
Venue: Kashima Soccer Stadium
Match: Kashima Antlers versus Vissel Kobe (J1 League)

When I was eight years old, I loved Subbuteo. It’s a simple game, but in the mind of a young boy living in a tiny village it opened up endless possibilities.

I created a world out of Subbuteo. It started as an austere place. A basic green pitch. Some spindly goalposts. A simple black and white football. And the two original enemies: red team versus blue team.

But it grew. Pocket money was saved. Trips into town meticulously planned. Birthday wishes granted. Letters to Father Christmas sent and answered.

Yet it was the scoreboard that changed it all.

A simple box emblazoned with a photograph of its main contents promised little. So I tipped it all out onto the carpet. The scoreboard itself was a simple construction. I could clip it into place within seconds.

Also inside the box was the list of team names to use with the scoreboard. It featured your usuals: Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United et al. But the printers hadn’t stopped at the boundaries of Europe. A couple of unknown names had tumbled out of the packet. I sorted them out in neat piles. Nothing all that interesting, except one team. It immediately grabbed my attention. And all these years later, I still remember it clearly.

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The wonderful world of Subbuteo. Credit: Luka Skill

Looking for answers

Kashima is a small city in Ibaraki prefecture. Fewer than 70,000 people call this place home. But far more than 70,000 people know the name of Kashima. And that’s almost entirely down to the city’s football team.

Kashima Antlers are the most successful club in Japanese football. Their stats speak for themselves.

Eight: J1 League titles.

Six: J.League Cups

Five: Emperor’s Cups

Antlers have also been ever-present in the top tier since the inception of the J.League in 1993. Basically, they’re kind of a big deal.

What caught my attention about them all those years ago, though, was the name. What kind of team is called Antlers? What does it mean?

I asked my parents, in the totally not annoying way an eight year old poses questions.

“Dad, who are Kashima Antlers? Why are they called Antlers? Where is Kashima? Can we go to Kashima?”

“Ask your mother.”

“Mum, dad said we could go to Kashima to see Antlers.”

My sisters were no help, either; they told me to go away. And my friends thought Antlers was a funny name.

Those were simpler times, of course. No answer was forthcoming from fellow human beings. A trip to the library was in vain. And that was the end of that.

Today a couple of clicks later and the internet provides the answer.

Kashima means deer island in Japanese, hence the Antlers name for the city’s team. If my eight-year-old ears had heard that explanation, they’d of sent the words to my brain for it to conjure up images of deer running wild on their own island, which also happened to have a football stadium.

However, I could have never imagined the reality.

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Kashima, or Deer Island, as I would have imagined it as a child

A journey of discovery

It’s an awkward journey to Kashima from my new home. Two and a half hours and six train changes. First it’s my every day commute through the Saitama suburbs, until the first transfer, which plunges me into the heart of Tokyo, a metropolis ten million lightyears ahead of my childhood village.

In the city there’s another train switch. People everywhere. Up and down the stairs. Skyscrapers overhead. Advertisements on every wall.

And then it’s time to settle back for an hour-long rattle out into Chiba. Buildings gradually reduce in height and eventually disperse into small clusters, like concrete islands amid seas of green.

But on the next train, the scenery changes again. Single houses, built in traditional style, cling to edge of paddy fields that have been bloated by the heavy overnight rain. Farmers in straw hats tend to their crops, while functionary tractors splash through the mud and small vans dart between the fields along narrow roads.

On train number six, I see a world far beyond my childhood imagination. Even my adult brain struggles to fully comprehend it. Vast expanses of water split into rectangles stretch away as far as the eye can see, merging with a fat, slowly winding river that drifts away towards distant bridges. A leaden grey sky reflects in the water, and I start to feel tired. There are few passengers in the damp carriage with a soaked floor. There’s no escape from the water here. I feel like I’ve found the end of the world. And there’s no terra firma.

But there are flickering reminders of home, like an old VHS tape that has traces of a previous recording. A tree-covered hill descending into the water resembles the coastline of a fishing village close to where I grew up. But it’s only the faintest of glimmers. I’m a long way from home.

One final train change. Darkness has descended. I see some fans in the colours of Kashima Antlers. It reassures me. A splash of colour amid the gloom. Train number seven looms into view. I board with the other supporters, disembarking a few minutes later at Kashima Soccer Stadium Station.

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The view from Kashima Soccer Stadium Station

Football heritage

By the time I was finished with my living room stadium, I felt proud. It seemed I had everything required: a pitch, players, officials, grandstands, little flag-waving fans and, of course, the scoreboard. But I clearly wasn’t dreaming big enough.

Kashima Soccer Stadium is huge. It looks like a spaceship in the middle of a forest. Giant football installations dot the wide expanses. I spy a distant lighthouse on the coast, and I feel the cold wind whipping off the water. And then there’s a statue of a football legend. If my eight-year-old self could see this, his provincial brain would explode. I find myself smiling at the audacity of it all.

I drift along and linger for a while at the statue. It’s Zico, the Brazilian wizard who dazzled crowds here from 1991 to 1994. His arrival helped thrust this little known team from a forgotten corner of an unfashionable prefecture to the top of Japanese football.

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Zico’s time at the club is remembered in statue form outside Kashima Soccer Stadium

Soaking up the atmosphere for as long as I can, I prepare to enter the stadium. The world of my childhood is rapidly becoming a reality before my eyes.

I find the correct entrance and immediately walk into a cloud of smoke wafting from a barbecue. This is something else I didn’t have at my hand-assembled stadium: an extensive catering operation. Meat is being grilled, steaming pots of motsu nabe are boiling away and warming cups of coffee are keeping the biting sea breeze at bay.

I’m in a complete daze. It’s all too real. I stumble through the crowds and find the staircase up to the fourth floor. It’s even colder on the exposed staircase. I wince as the wind hits me in the face, and through my watering eyes I can make out the lighthouse amid a dull haze.

I reach the summit and emerge at the entrance to the top tier of the East Stand. I show my ticket and walk out to finally put a face to a name. Kashima Antlers. Twenty five years after first reading those words.

Match night at last

It’s huge. Under the blinding glare of the lights built into the undulating roof of the stands, the pitch glows an almost luminous green. The fans behind the goal to my left are already singing and jumping.

So this is the name that tumbled out of that humble scoreboard box.

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Kashima Soccer Stadium is an impressive sight from high up in the East Stand

And as for the real scoreboard? There are two of them. They play video, backed by a deafeningly-loud sound system. I start to feel embarrassed for my toy stadium.

As kick-off nears, the home fans unfurl a giant flag.

Spirit of Zico

They have a drum, too. They’re whipping up the atmosphere as graphics with ear-splitting sounds play on the giant screens to announce the line-ups.

And then the players emerge.

Kashima Antlers are in their traditional shades of red. Tonight’s visitors, Vissel Kobe, are in a black and white strip. The pre-match formalities are dealt with and before I know it, we’re underway.

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The Spirit of Zico lives on in Kashima

Football in reality

The game ebbs and flows. Antlers start brightly, and have the ball in the back of the net early on. But Mu Kanazaki’s close-range effort is disallowed for offside. The fans behind the goal keep up their chanting. At the opposite end, the small pocket of hardy Vissel fans create an impressive racket.

And it’s those visiting supporters who end the first half with something to cheer. Former Germany international and World Cup winner Lukas Podolski lives up to his reputation with a beautifully chipped pass that finds an unmarked Hirotaka Mita, who calmly heads the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper.

But in the second half, Antlers work their way back into the game. Chance after chance comes and goes until they finally force an equaliser. A right wing cross from Atsuto Uchida is spilled by Vissel goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, straight into the path of Yuma Suzuki, leaving him with an easy header to equalise.

Both teams continue to create chances until the final whistle, but it ends Kashima Antlers 1 Vissel Kobe 1.

A scoreboard story

Football can be whatever you want it to be. It can be glamour and glory. It can be family and community. It can be played on the pitch or watched from the stands. And it can be escapism.

When you’re unable to leave your unremarkable hometown or village, football offers the chance to believe that anything is possible. It opens up the mind to realities beyond your dimension. An exotic name written on a piece of paper is enough to make you dream.

So as the final whistle blows at a futuristic stadium on a lonely stretch of coast over 6,000 miles from home, I’m taken back to a time when I was sat on the living room floor with the name of an unfamiliar team in my hands. I carefully place the piece of card into the scoreboard, which sits in the corner of my humble stadium as two teams of plastic men line up for their daily game.

So much has changed since then. But the only thing that hasn’t is the name on the scoreboard.

Kashima Antlers.

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The scoreboard. Far more advanced than my childhood toy

To find out how to get to Kashima Soccer Stadium, click on page 2.

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