A rainy season match between two struggling lower-league teams triggers memories that take me back to where it all began
Date: Sunday, June 30th, 2019 Location: Numazu, Shizuoka prefecture Venue: Ashitaka Athletics Stadium Match: Azul Claro Numazu versus SC Sagamihara (J3 League) Attendance: 1,214
Azul Claro Numazu.
The colour of the Shizuoka sky, punctured only by the snow-capped peak of nearby Mount Fuji.
Of the sea that laps against the jagged shoreline of this prefecture, which stretches down the Pacific Ocean coast.
It all feels like a cruel joke today.
But it’s a familiar scene. One that brings back memories of a different time and place.
This is what happens when you watch football in a stadium at the top of the hill during Japan’s rainy season.
The rise of Numazu
Shizuoka is a seriously beautiful part of Japan. It’s also a seriously football-obsessed area of the country.
Then there’s Fujieda MYFC, playing in J3, the third tier. And that’s where you’ll also find Azul Claro Numazu.
Being in the J.League is still a relatively new feeling for Numazu. They joined J3 in 2017 following a steady rise through the regional divisions. But their history goes back to 1977, when they were known as Numazu Arsenal SC. They became Azul Claro Numazu in 2006.
And Numazu have made life in the professional ranks look fairly simple so far. They finished third in their debut season and fourth in 2018.
But ahead of today’s game against SC Sagamihara, they find themselves in the unfamiliar position of 13th in the 18-team league, with 15 points from 13 games.
The visitors, meanwhile, are also facing up to a season of mid-table obscurity, sitting ninth on 18 points.
It’s all primed for an even contest, with the rainy season set to throw everything it has at Ashitaka Athletics Stadium.
Numazu is both blessed and cursed by its location. It faces the ocean and has a bustling harbour front with many seafood restaurants.
But the bullet train that whisks passengers between Tokyo and Osaka doesn’t stop here. It visits nearby Atami, from where you can catch a local train to Numazu. But with so many distractions along the way, the city doesn’t quite have enough to draw people away from the tourist trail.
Yet the city does have one more pull factor. And it’s a big one. On clear days, Mount Fuji looms over the rooftops, just 30km beyond the city limits.
Photo credit: O. Heda
However, this is not a clear day.
On the train ride out of Tokyo, the conditions gradual descend into a slush of dirty grey. The beige apartment blocks of Kawasaki and Yokohama fade into the nothingness of the background. As the urban sprawl of the Kanto plain releases its grip, tree branches weighed down by the rain and whipped up by the wind slap against the train windows. I glance out to my left. A heavy, dark blue sea rolls slowly under the oppressive sky.
And finally I arrive. To a city that seems all but deserted. I cast my eye in vain for some light blue shirts. Nobody. I look for the dark green of Sagamihara. Nothing.
But thanks to a tip-off from fellow groundhopper Charlie Marriott, I know where to go.
A small piece of paper is stuck to bus stop number two. It’s a welcome sight. According to Azul Claro Numazu’s official website, there’s no bus to the stadium. Thankfully, though, this isn’t the case, and a couple of minutes later I’m onboard the match day shuttle to Ashitaka Athletics Stadium.
The bus climbs up out of the city centre, weaving through narrow residential streets and up into the hills that surround Numazu. Wisps of cloud are carried along on the strong breeze that shakes the trees in this green outskirt of the city.
It takes about 15 minutes to reach the stadium, where an impressive number of fans are already gathered. Supporters of J3 teams are a hardy bunch. A bit of wind and rain won’t put them off.
But the weather is about to take another turn.
Football in the fog
I arrive at Ashitaka Stadium in time to see the Azul Claro Numazu players’ bus arrive. A group of chanting, drum-beating fans welcome the team as they file off the bus and into the stadium.
There are still about 90 minutes until kick off when I head inside to find a seat. A huge stand with a curved roof dominates one side of the pitch. The rest of the stadium is completely exposed with grass banks behind both goals and a huge expanse opposite the main stand.
It must be lovely to sit out on the grass bank during spring or autumn, or even on a summer’s evening, when the temperature has dropped and a light breeze is rustling through the trees that surround the stadium.
But today I can only look on in admiration at the commitment of the fans, huddled behind the goal in matching Azul Claro Numazu ponchos, singing with gusto and waving flags with abandon. And it’s still only the warm-up.
As I watch the fans on the grass bank, I feel quite pleased with my seating choice. I’m sheltered from the light rain and I have a decent view of the pitch.
Both of those situations are about to change.
It feels like a bucket of water has been thrown over the back of my head. The grey sky has cracked open and torrential rain is being sprayed through the exposed stand by a howling wind.
But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from watching football in Japan, it’s always be prepared. I fumble through my bag and pull out the convenience store poncho. It may not be the height of fashion, but it will keep me relatively dry. And I can still see the pitch, so all is good.
Enter the fog.
It descends slowly, first enveloping the trees, then the scoreboard behind the goal, and finally the floodlights. Murky beams of pale white light try in vain to puncture the grey. The result looks like a water painting in a dirty puddle.
As the players emerge for kick off, cheered on by a hardy line-up of enthusiastic cheerleaders, the fog has well and truly set in. Shadowy players huddle on the pitch. They take their places. The referee blows his whistle. And we’re underway in the mist, the rain and the wind.
Struggling to see
It’s an exciting start to the match, from what I can gather. End-to-end, lots of chances, sliding tackles flying on in on the wet surface. But to tell exactly what’s going on is difficult through the pea soup air.
Then drama. A coming together in the thick mist around the Sagamihara penalty area. Daiki Umei has brought down Numazu’s Yoshiki Oka. Eiichiro Ozaki makes no mistake with the penalty, dispatching it confidently into the bottom left corner of the goal.
The remainder of the half is played out in the same torrid conditions. Ghostly trees sway beyond the faded grass banks. A dulled blue collection of Numazu fans behind the goal valiantly support the team despite being battered by the wind and the rain.
Azul Claro head in at half-time with a 1-0 lead, and the second half continues to entertain with great chances for both teams.
And as the weather slowly begins to clear, the goalkeepers start to shine. Both Numazu’s Ayumi Niekawa and Sagamihara’s Yudai Tanaka pull off spectacular stops from long-distance screamers, powerful headers and snatched penalty area shots.
But Numazu hold on for the victory, with Niekawa picking up the man of the match award in what turned into an entertaining and equal contest amid challenging conditions.
A familiar feeling
Numazu’s players celebrate with a dance in front of the fans who put up with the weather in good spirits. It’s nice to see them enjoying the moment.
The SC Sagamihara fans, too, deserve a mention for their unwavering support on a day where they could very easily have travelled back to Kanagawa with three points. They still seem relatively cheerful at full time, buoyed more by the performance than the result.
I, too, have enjoyed the experience, despite having to sit on a wet seat while effectively wearing a plastic bag over my head.
There always seems to be such a close connection between the players and the supporters at clubs of this size playing at this level. It’s a social gathering for groups of friends and families. It’s clear how much the children enjoy the experience, getting involved with the chants and pointing out their favourite players.
It all takes me back to my introduction to football at Plymouth Argyle with my late dad. And on this day in particular, it reminds me of my very first game at Home Park.
The conditions were almost identical on that Saturday. It was January 11th, 1997. Constant rain and a heavy fog that rolled in off the sea. It covered the stands, hovered over the pitch. A nothing game between two struggling teams in Division Two. Until stoppage time. A shadowy penalty area kerfuffle. The net billows. It’s Plymouth Argyle 1 Crewe Alexandra 0. I’m cold. Drenched by the rain. But I’m hooked.
Hopefully today’s match sparked the same passion for the game among the young fans in attendance.
A dull grey day that leads to a light blue future of support for Azul Claro Numazu.