In the space of 90 minutes, AC Nagano Parceiro provided a reminder of why sport is so special. This is how a third division Japanese team completely won over a new fan
Date: Saturday, May 4th, 2019 Location: Shinonoi, Nagano prefecture Venue: Nagano U Stadium Match: AC Nagano Parceiro versus SC Sagamihara (J3 League)
A free-kick has been awarded just outside the area and Kazuki Arinaga is standing over the ball. We’re into the 55th minute and it’s AC Nagano Parceiro 0 SC Sagamihara 0. The home fans are expectant, everyone in unison waving bright orange scarves above their heads. They’re urging a goal, willing the ball into the back of the net.
The referee blows his whistle. Arinaga whips a strong shot over the wall, forcing a full-stretch Yudai Tanaka into a save. But the ball is only parried. Hiroshi Azuma is there. He side foots the ball into the roof of the net.
Behind the goal is an eruption of colour and noise. Orange flags rise from the front rows, blocking out the view of the distant mountains. There are high-fives all round. And then I feel an arm around my shoulder. We’re bouncing up and down, along the row, kicking empty cups and food containers out of the way.
I catch a glimpse of Azuma running towards the corner flag. His team-mates follow and bundle on top of him. The chants of the faithful reverberate around the compact grandstand.
It’s a visceral feeling. To be carried along on this wave of enthusiasm. To be included. To be welcomed in. I haven’t felt like this at the football since way back when at my home town club. It’s invigorating.
This is AC Nagano Parceiro. In the third division of Japanese football. And one of the best match day experiences I’ve ever had.
Welcome to Nagano
Nagano is a fairly small city in Japan, but punches above its size. It’s famous for its snow sports, known as a former host of the Winter Olympics, and recognised for its beautiful temples set amid pristine nature.
But as I step out of the train station, I’m greeted by a carnival atmosphere. Ear-splitting music is blaring from a stage, where a small army of colourful performers are pulling off some ambitious dance moves.
It’s Golden Week in Japan, a time of year when a collection of national holidays are lumped together to provide the nation’s overworked citizens with a well-earned break. And this year’s Golden Week is longer than usual, due to the abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30th and the ascension of his son, the new Emperor Naruhito, on May 1st.
And Nagano is clearly in celebratory mood as Japan takes its first steps of the Reiwa era. On the long, straight road that leads away from the station, police have closed off access to cars. Food stalls, craft stands, flower displays and colourful posters line the street. Crowds throng every available space, winding slowly towards the tree covered mountains that shimmer beyond the heat haze rising off the tarmac.
I reach a blockage in the road, where a mass of people have gathered around a colourful troupe. Speakers suddenly burst to life, as do the dancers, who throw themselves around the small circle between the crowd with an energy that belies the sapping heat of an unseasonably warm May day.
It takes time to weave between the slowly moving Saturday strollers, but eventually I reach the end of the road, and find myself at the entrance to Zenkoji.
This temple played an instrumental role in the growth of Nagano, with the city developing first as a temple town. Zenkoji dates back to the 7th century, and is truly mysterious.
Somewhere amid the sprawling grounds is hidden a statue. And it’s not just any old sculpture. It’s the first Buddhist statue to have ever been brought into Japan after the religion was introduced to the country in the 6th century.
Every six years, a copy of the statue is shown to the public for a couple of weeks. The original can never been seen.
And there’s more intrigue that lingers in the air of this spiritual forest temple. In the basement of the main hall is an underground passage. It’s completely dark inside. Venture into the blackness and as you grope the wall for guidance, you might feel the shape of a key. This is the “key to paradise”. Touch it and you have achieved instant salvation.
An hour later, and I’m starting to think that someone from AC Nagano Parceiro once upon a time ran their hand across the key to paradise. And spent all their salvation on a football stadium.
A trip to the countryside
It’s hard to feel further away from the activity in Nagano city as the local train trundles over bridges and through the verdant countryside that sprawls out towards the mountains.
There are still over two hours until kick-off, and Shinonoi Station is all but deserted. I catch a glimpse of some welcome orange. A huge AC Nagano Parceiro banner in the station concourse.
I then I spy an orange-shirted fan. He darts down a staircase. I emerge from the shadows of the station, out into the blazing afternoon sun, putting on my hat to shade my eyes. Hazy mountains encircle the Nagano Basin. They feel within touching distance from this rural outpost.
I head in the same direction as the man in a Nagano shirt and see a solitary bus waiting at the empty terminal. There are already a few home fans on board, plus a couple of green-shirted visitors from Sagamihara.
It’s a short ride to Nagano U Stadium. The bus rattles through the dusty streets, past boxy shops and restaurants, out further on to a two-lane road that passes industrial estates and empty fast food restaurants, until we reach a sanctuary of green.
Minami Nagano Sports Park is a legacy of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The opening and closing ceremonies were held at the Olympic Stadium inside the park, with the facility now a baseball venue. In the surrounding parkland, families are enjoying the warmth, having picnics under the trees, watching as their children happily run around. Some older kids are kicking a football about, just a stone’s throw from the home of AC Nagano Parceiro.
And what a home it is.
A world-class stadium
My face is almost pressed against the bus window as I stretch to take in the huge grandstands. The stadium is only four years old, and it shows. It’s sleek, imposing, modern. All this for a J3 team.
As soon as the bus stops I’m on my feet. I need to see more.
Orange flags bearing photographs of the players flutter fiercely in the strong wind that’s whipping across the park. A huge line of home fans stands strong against the gusts, waiting patiently for the stadium gates to open.
I watch as the gates open, a sea of orange pouring into the grey concrete concourse behind the main stand. I follow.
There’s nothing like that first glimpse of the pitch. The expectation building as you climb the stairs. Hearing the chants before you can see the fans. You quicken your step. Crane your neck to see beyond the final step.
And there it is.
It’s stunning. Two towering grandstands draw the eye along the pristine pitch to a TV screen above the away end. A backdrop of rugged mountains that look like a watercolour painting sit beneath a blue sky dotted with white, fluffy clouds. It’s football paradise.
And the view is only the beginning.
A carnival of football
It doesn’t take long to get a feel for the passion of AC Nagano fans. As soon as the players emerge for the warm-up, the singing and flag-waving begins.
There are many benefits of a modern, purpose-built football stadium. One is that you’re right on the pitch. Many J.League teams play at athletics stadium, with the fans separated from the action by a running track. But there’s no such moat at Nagano U Stadium. The players run up to the fans for a roaring pre-match greeting.
Another advantage is the acoustics. A stadium with covered stands really amplifies the noise. You can feel it vibrate up through your feet. And AC Nagano fans know how to make the most of this design feature.
The warm-up is a non-stop party of singing and chanting. There’s still the best part of an hour until kick-off. It’s clear that the atmosphere is going to be incredible if the players perform on the pitch.
And, thankfully, they do.
A goalless first half doesn’t dampen the spirits of the fans. Parceiro are playing well and creating the best chances.
And then in the 55th minute, Azuma rifles home the rebound from the free-kick. Cue pandemonium.
Fifteen minutes later and it happens again. Reo Takeshita’s cross from the right finds Azuma in front of goal. He stretches out his left leg to double the lead.
This time I’m ready for it. We’re jumping up and down, moving across the aisle as Azuma celebrates with his team-mates in front of our stand. It’s a blur of orange, a dizzying world of noise and motion.
Parceiro see out the game comfortably. There are more high-fives to mark a successful result, and the singing continues as the players make their way over. Fans scuttle over seats to get into prime position.
The team line up behind the goal and bow to a wall of colour and sound. And then we go again. The players are bouncing on the pitch, the fans jumping in the stand. Everyone in unison. A community brought together through this wonderful football club.
A lasting memory
I have time to reflect on the match day experience as the bullet train whistles through the darkness of Nagano prefecture by night. I can still hear the songs ringing in my ears. There’s a twinge in my legs from the celebrations.
It’s easy to get cynical about modern football. All the money sloshing about at the top of the game, the dubious owners, the abusive fans arguing on social media.
But there are moments that make you remember why you fell in love with the game in the first place. That sense of belonging, of sharing an experience. That split second when the back of the net rustles and you’re swept away on a wave of euphoria. A moment when you’re welcomed in as a member of the community, without any questions being asked.
The fact that I found all this in a small Japanese city, 6,000 miles from home, just goes to show how special sport can be.
So thank you, AC Nagano Parceiro. I’ll be seeing you again soon.