Football in the Community

Lewes FC’s raison d’être stretches far beyond playing football, and as the coronavirus continues to cause complications the fan-owned club from the English lower leagues is playing a vital role in its community… (日本語版)

Football Channel 15th May, 2020

With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc worldwide, more and more people are in need of assistance as they try to adapt.

Whether that’s the most vulnerable members of society struggling to get hold of essential items, parents forced to work remotely while simultaneously home-schooling young children, or people missing the simple pleasure of socialising with friends at the stadium at the weekend, 2020 is increasingly forcing acclimatisation to a new normal.

Football clubs are playing proactive roles in that process, and perhaps few more so than Lewes FC in the southeast of England.

Lewes were introduced to readers of this column back in 2017, and the community-owned, community-run club – which became the first in the world to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally – has continued to flourish in the past three years.

As well as the men’s team being promoted back to the Isthmian League Premier Division (seventh tier) at the end of the 2017-18 season and the women’s side establishing itself in the FA Women’s Championship (second tier), the club has continued to make telling contributions off the field as well – something that has only intensified during the current pandemic.

“We are in a sense confirming and acting on our position in the community,” director Charlie Dobres told me at the start of May. “We’re doing stuff that’s consistent with our position, consistent with our values, and consistent with our over-arching strategy – which is to be exemplary as a football club.”

Despite the men’s 2019-20 season having been terminated and the women’s suspended pending a possible restart, the club is continuing to place a focus on the relationship with its fans – whether through an Online Community Help form, which enables individuals to request support for themselves or others in need, the ‘Home Heroes’ initiative, through which a thank you letter and pen are sent to children being good at home, or running Q&A sessions on Zoom with the managers and directors.

“We want them to look at Lewes Football Club and think, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I would have thought my football club would do’,” Dobres said. “And it’s working very, very positively and it’s only strengthening the bonds which were already very strong.”

Alongside such concerns, the club is also having to deal with the issue of when and how football itself will be able to return, a problem Dobres loosely breaks into two parts: health and economic.

“How could you make an environment from training to matchday entirely safe for the participants? Even if you can solve the health issues of it – and I’m not sure how you do – then the economic reality will hit home.”

A large part of that economic reality concerns the likely need to play matches behind closed doors, and while the vast revenues from TV income would enable the Premier League to navigate those choppy waters with relative ease, many clubs lower down the ladder – whose staff wages are currently being covered by the government’s ‘furloughing’ scheme – would need financial assistance in order to survive.

Football Channel, 16th May 2020

“For everybody outside of the Premier League, when you restart football then clearly you are re-employing your players and coaches, who are currently furloughed. So you take on the cost base again, but if you don’t have your income stream from match-day then you can’t afford your cost base.”

Lewes would of course be impacted like all other clubs by the loss of income from ticket sales, but one benefit they do have is the fact they are funded by fans.

“Most of our costs are related to the activity of playing football,” Dobres explained. “We do have some fixed costs – non-football staff, utilities, rent – but they’re not sky high, and we also have additional revenues that other clubs don’t have, we have ownership revenue.”

That set-up enables people to pay a minimum of 40 pounds a year to buy a share in the club – with no individual able to purchase more than one share, irrespective of how much they spend – thus ensuring a solid foundation even during times of hardship such as those caused by Covid-19.

“Because of our extended ownership – 1,500, 1,600 owners – there’s no one owner who comes in and says, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m taking my toys home’,” Dobres adds.

“A key thing that community/fan-ownership offers is stability, as well as offering a far greater nature of being embedded in the community. Because your purpose is to serve your community – both geographical and your community of interest, in our case our campaigning, our work on gender equality, our work on getting gambling advertising out of football.

“There has been no football played in Lewes since the same time as everybody else, since March, but our visibility, our meaning within our communities, hasn’t really changed. Because it can carry all that stuff, that’s what football can do. It means that football gets to use its power for good. Our belief is that football is an engine for social change.”

In that sense, perhaps J.League clubs could learn a thing or two from Lewes as they look to establish firmer footing in and establish themselves as integral parts of their hometowns.

“A lot of the feedback and positive comments we get – at any time, but especially this time – are from people that have never been to the Dripping Pan,” Dobres concludes, with reference to the club’s home ground.

“They know of us potentially because of our profile and activities in the community, but they haven’t been to a football match. But they love what we do. And one of the things I love about that is that it’s really reclaiming the original purpose of football. Demonstrating that football has that power and meaning so beyond kicking a ball round a field.”


If you would like to become an owner of Lewes FC, you can do so here from as little as £40 per year (approx. 5,300)

Furthermore, if you become an owner/are already an owner and would like to found the Japan Owner’s Branch (no extra cost), please get in touch with Charlie Dobres (charlie@lewesfc.com)


The man down under

After more than a decade as a J.League journeyman Yu Hasegawa opted to embark upon a new challenge, and his decision could serve as an example to other Japanese players as they near the end of their playing careers… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel 1st May, 2020

It isn’t especially surprising these days when a Japanese player transfers overseas.

However, while a whole raft of talented youngsters continue to make their way to Europe each season looking to follow in the footsteps of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Kagawa, and Takumi Minamino by establishing themselves in the world’s biggest leagues, not many journeymen at the tail end of their careers decide to ply their trade in another country.

That is exactly what Yu Hasegawa did in February though, opting to move to the regional leagues in Australia after V-Varen Nagasaki didn’t renew his contract.

“Once I was over 30, I started thinking about how to continue with football and how long I’d be able to keep playing,” he said of his move to Woolongong Olympic of the semi-professional Illawarra Premier League. “I was thinking of all sorts of things to enrich my life in terms of football and also in general. First of all, I was thinking I really wanted to make an effort with English.

“I wasn’t only thinking about the level of football, but also considering what choice I should make to develop as a person, including things outside of the game. I also thought about retiring or working for a company related to football – something other than being a player – as well as things outside of football. Initially I went along just to join training and have a trial and see.”

The 32-year-old was introduced to the possibility of playing in Australia by his former Montedio Yamagata teammate Yuzo Tashiro, who saw out the end of his career down under at Woolongong Wolves – where he also worked as a coach as the team won the National Premier Leagues (NPL) title last year.

For Hasegawa, the chance to make a fresh impression and let his football do the talking after several years struggling with injury and as a squad player was a key motivator for the move.

“Nobody knows anything about me, so if I play well I can earn appreciation that way,” the former Omiya Ardija, Tokushima Vortis, and Shimizu S-Pulse striker said. “That excited me.

“In Japan people knew my name to a certain extent, so I was seen as being a certain type of player and sometimes I wasn’t sure if people were really watching my performances or not. I always felt like I was ‘waiting’ in Japan. Waiting for a team to approach me, waiting to see if the coach would use me in games. So from there I was able to take a step forward and make the choice myself, and felt like, ‘This could be it’. I want to try and leave an impression here, as well as aiming to grow personally outside of football.”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has prevented Hasegawa from making any impact on the pitch yet, curtailing the 2020 season just before it began, and also hampering his plans to work on his communication skills.

“They were quick to lockdown over here. I’m not going to [English] school – I was just thinking about starting when the lockdown began, and then I was considering whether to go back to Japan or not. Of course we can’t train either. Someone tested positive for the virus and then that week all sporting activity stopped.

“In Australia the supermarkets are open, but restaurants are takeaway only. You’re also not allowed outside with more than one other person. No gatherings. They’ve also got social distancing. But in Australia sports are really important to everybody so exercise is okay.

Football Channel, Friday 1st May 2020

“It’s okay to exercise, but gyms and so on are closed so it has to be in a park or something. Outside it’s okay as long as there aren’t more than two of you. When you go to the park you see a lot of people with their personal trainers. I don’t have one but I’m running and doing football training.”

Some of that has been with former Albirex Niigata and Tochigi SC midfielder Go Hayama, who signed for NPL club Sydney Olympic after leaving Machida Zelvia ahead of the new J.League season, while Hasegawa is also conducting private coaching sessions for local Japanese youngsters.

“If there’s no game we don’t get paid, it’s done on a week-to-week basis,” he says of the impact on he and his teammates, who all have other jobs alongside their playing commitments.

“There are lots of Japanese mums, so I’m coaching children around middle school age in one-on-one sessions.”

Despite the added difficulties of settling into a new country and new style of football during a global pandemic, Hasegawa insists he is taking everything in his stride.

“In terms of my condition and mental state things are different to usual, but then coming to Australia meant things were already different to usual,” he said.

“Also, in terms of the mental aspects there are things beyond my control that I can’t do anything about, so I’m finding myself feeling less stressed in that respect. Mentally I feel really good and there’s not any stress.”

The more relaxed nature of his new environs seem to be helping in that regard for the naturally laid-back Hasegawa, who’s also enjoying the more open nature of Australian culture.

“It’s really bright – happy. There’s lots of ocean too. It seems as if everyone is surfing, and the mentality is, ‘I can’t do anything about it so there’s no use worrying’. In a different way to Japanese people, if someone thinks differently and gives their opinion the other person listens properly. I think that’s really good. It suits me.”

The future is also something the Yamanashi native is keeping an open mind about, although he is sure moving abroad at this stage in his career will provide him with more possibilities when the time does come to hang up his boots.

“I really like Australia so now I’m thinking I’d like to stay for a long time, but my biggest target is that I want to choose by myself,” he explained. “There will be a time when I retire, when I stop being a player. At that time maybe I’ll try to work in Australia, perhaps I’ll go back to live in Japan, or maybe in another country, but I want to try now so that when that time comes I can make the choice myself.

“If I finished my career in Japan as a J.Leaguer I don’t think I’d have the option then of going to a different country. By learning English in Australia I’ll have a wider choice of countries.”

With so much uncertainty in the world right now such a proactive and flexible attitude will surely stand Hasegawa in good stead over the coming months and years, and it is perhaps an approach more Japanese players should try to adopt as they transition into post-playing careers.


2009-2019 J.League Best 11

The world remains in a state of limbo and unease on account of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and with the future uncertain and it difficult to know what will come next many are instead using this time to look back.

Football fans are no exception, and the past month has been awash with ‘flashback’ and ‘on this day’ content reminding us of memorable events from years gone by.

This glut of nostalgia prompted me into a period of reflection as well, and while thinking back over the decade or so I have been covering the J.League (and, in a long-overdue tidy up of my apartment, sorting through the reams of programmes and team-sheets I’ve accumulated in that time) I tried to come up with a best 11 of the players I’ve seen between 2009 and 2019.

This isn’t necessarily a list of the objectively ‘best’ players in the J.League during that time, but instead an 11 in a 4-2-3-1 formation who left an impression on me by excelling during one particular season – or, in a couple of cases, over consecutive seasons.

It’s unclear when we’ll be able to watch live action again, so for now let’s savour some of the stars of recent years (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th April, 2020

Goalkeeper – Kwoun Sun-tae (Kashima Antlers, 2018)

Kwoun’s presence behind a solid back four laid the foundations for Antlers to finally add the AFC Champions League trophy to their cabinet in 2018. I was required to stand immediately behind his goal while covering the second leg of the final against Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium – something which enabled me to see up very close the coolness and composure he brought to the defence as they wrapped up the title in one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the world.

Right back – Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

Sakai looked like the real deal from the moment Reysol re-introduced themselves to the first division in 2011. Boasting pace and power in both directions, his crossing ability also made him a real threat in the final third, and despite still only being 20 at the start of the campaign his aggression and willingness to get forward and attack was vital to the team’s stunning achievement of winning the J1 title the year after becoming second division champions.

Centre back – Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus, 2010)

After an acrimonious departure from Urawa Reds, Tulio relished his role at the heart of Dragan Stojkovic’s defence for Grampus. Often seeming to intimidate opponents even before the battle for possession had begun, few forwards found their way past the Japan international – who also shone at the World Cup alongside Yuji Nakazawa in the summer – and he posed just as much threat at the other end of the pitch, finding the net six times as Nagoya galloped to glory.

Centre back – Makoto Kakuda (Vegalta Sendai, 2011-12)

I’m cheating a little here as he was actually playing in defensive midfield, but Kakuda exemplified Vegalta’s spirit during their toughest yet most successful period. Just the kind of player everyone wants on their team and nobody wants to play against (he picked up 12 bookings over the course of the two seasons), no cause was lost to Kakuda, and although Vegalta ultimately fell just short of a trophy he gave all he could to help raise the spirits of the region.

Left back – Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

An unsung hero of Reysol’s title-winning side, Hashimoto was just the kind of player coach Nelsinho loves. Hard running, fearless in the challenge, and unafraid of trying something different if needed when going forwards, his work on the left perfectly complemented that of Hiroki Sakai on the opposite flank. He even got a moment of glory in the title-clinching game, striking his only goal of the campaign with Reysol’s second in the 3-1 win away to Urawa on the last day of the season.

Football Channel 19th April 2020

Central midfield – Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale, 2017)

An all-time great of the J.League. As well as possessing sublime vision, pinpoint passing, and effortless composure, the Kawasaki Frontale legend also has the rare ability of uniting fans and players of all stripes. Everyone in the game is unanimous in their appreciation of the one-club man’s talents, and the manner in which he kept his head to help perennial bridesmaid Frontale to their maiden league title in 2017 epitomised the quality of one of Japan’s smoothest operators.

Central midfield – Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima Antlers, 2016)

Another sublimely gifted manipulator of the ball, Shibasaki always seemed to see things in slow motion. The Aomori native was able to play at his own pace in the middle of the park, and came into his own as Antlers won a J1 and Emperor’s Cup double in 2016. And, of course, there was also that game against Real Madrid, when he showed he really did have what it took to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.

Right wing – Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

The Brazilian was close to unplayable in 2011. His strutting, cocky play-style added the something extra Reysol needed to elevate them from a very good team to a champion team, and his spikiness so often served as the fuel to ignite the fiery crowd at Hitachi Dai. Combative, creative, and with an acute awareness of what was going on around him, he knew just when to release a pass or, just as likely, a shot into the back of the net.

Attacking midfield – Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka, 2013)

Kakitani was a joy to watch in 2013, when he was at the peak of his powers. The youngster was at the heart of everything good Cerezo did going forwards, and he was so full of confidence it often seemed he wasn’t so much running with the ball as gliding across the turf with it. That self-assuredness was on display in the final third too, as he racked up 21 goals – including the goal of the season.

Left wing – Yoshinori Muto (FC Tokyo, 2015)

He may only have played half a season, but Muto was the standout performer from 2015. This was one of the few occasions when I’ve seen an emerging Japanese player in the J.League who’s already too good for the division – and, perhaps more importantly, who knew it himself. For all his politeness off the pitch there was an arrogance to the FC Tokyo forward on it, and there was a genuine thrill in watching him perform each weekend.

Centre forward – Hisato Sato (Sanfrecce Hiroshima, 2012-13)

The total striker, Sato was an absolute pleasure to watch during this purple period. Blessed with sensational awareness, imagination, and the ability to score from anywhere, the No.11 was ever-present and notched 39 goals as Sanfrecce claimed back-to-back titles. Whether finishing deftly after breaking in behind with a burst of pace, shaking off his marker to be in the right place at the right time for close-range efforts, or dispatching thunderbolts from the blue, everything he touched seemed to finish in the back of the net.


The game giving back

With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc around the world, football is increasingly being tasked with giving back to the communities which enable it to thrive… (日本語版)

Football Channel 25th March, 2020

Football clubs and leagues around the world often appear to take their fans for granted.

Whether as a result of steadily increasing ticket prices, schedules arranged to suit broadcasters rather than match-going supporters, or the seemingly never-ending cycle of new shirts available at grossly-inflated prices, there is a growing sense that fans are seen as customers rather than a vital pillar upon which teams are built.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has brought that imbalance sharply into focus though, shining a spotlight onto the fact that the relationship between the game and society should not be structured in a provider-consumer manner, but instead as a symbiotic association in which football is required to give back just as much as it takes.

With no matches happening, people warned to practice ‘social distancing’ and stay home as much as possible, and the uncertain nature of the spread of the virus meaning restart dates and conditions remain unclear, fans across the globe are without their weekly fix of live football and clubs are without the people who enable them to thrive.

In such unusual times, the sport has been forced to reassess its function in society, with clubs capitalising upon their prominent roles in their communities to convey positive messages and provide assistance.

In Japan, for instance, this has largely come by way of social media activity, with players performing public service duties by posting videos of themselves demonstrating the correct way to wash your hands or coaches aiding parents struggling with school closures by introducing mini-drills that can be practiced at home.

In England, where clubs are obviously operating in a different financial stratosphere, football has also been tasked with giving rather than taking in this time of need.

A handful of Premier League sides donated matchday hospitality food and drink to local homeless charities after games were called off, for instance, while others made cash donations to local food banks. Chelsea, meanwhile, went one step further by making the hotel at Stamford Bridge available for use by NHS staff working at nearby hospitals.

Elsewhere, England manager Gareth Southgate delivered a dignified and heartfelt message to fans, demonstrating the kind of leadership that has sadly been lacking in the country’s politicians as the crisis deepens.

Football Channel, Saturday 28th March, 2020

“We were due to play next week and to represent you all this summer, but now is clearly not the moment for us to take centre-stage,” he wrote in an open letter on 20 March.

“The heroes will be the men and women who continue working tirelessly in our hospitals and medical centres to look after our friends and families. They won’t receive the individual acclaim, but we all know their importance is beyond anything we do on the pitch.

“When we play again as an England team, it will be at a time when not only our country but the rest of the world as well is on the road to recovery. Hopefully we will be closer to each other than ever, and ready for the beautiful distraction that football can bring.”

Former Yokohama F.Marinos and Omiya Ardija player David Babunski struck a similar tone in a Twitter post the following day, sharing some eloquent thoughts on the unfolding situation and the manner in which we should reflect on it to keep things in perspective.

“Technologically speaking, we find ourselves in a better position than ever before to deal with such a crisis, but where do we stand morally and psychologically?” the 26-year-old asked.

“Are we smart enough to use the tools at our disposal effectively? Are we compassionate enough to really care for one another’s wellbeing regardless of ethnicity and above economic interests? Are our priorities in the correct order?”

While Babunski was considering the issue on a wider scale, his musings also provide food-for-thought with regards to the relationship between football clubs and their fans.

“This pandemic is forcing us to drop our arrogance and egocentricity and look straight into our vulnerability as a species. It makes obvious our dependency on each other for surviving and thriving in a globalized world. It highlights the urgent necessity of transcending our tribal, nationalistic, limited identities and adopt[ing] a universal perspective of who we are if [we] want to co-operate successful[ly] at [a] large scale.”

Perhaps it is too optimistic to hope that the current crisis produces a long-term change, but here’s hoping the difficulties endured can produce a new sense of perspective about football and the role it should play in society.


Coronavirus forcing J.League into a corner

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc over the past month, and with the impact of the virus showing no signs of slowing down the J.League could soon have some big decisions to make… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th March, 2020

When the J.League announced its first coronavirus-induced break on 25 February, it came a little out of the blue and was greeted with plenty of surprise.

The decision to postpone the second round of Levain Cup group stage games – swiftly followed by a pause in all regular league action until 15 March – preceded the government’s request that all elementary, middle, and high schools close, and was seen by many as an excessive measure.

A fortnight on, however, the situation isn’t looking any better medically, while the general mood in society – sounding train alarms because somebody sneezed, panic buying toilet paper, selling face masks at exorbitant prices – is becoming increasingly fraught.

In that context, it was much less surprising when J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai held a hastily arranged press briefing on the evening of 9 March to confirm that, as speculated, the break would be extended, this time until 3 April.

Even that date was only offered as one the league will, “do everything in [its] power to resume by”, and with the virus spreading steadily around the world and no-one really sure when or if it will slow down, it is hard to know when business will be able to resume as normal.

Whether people are more at risk of spreading or catching the virus by attending football matches than they are on the commuter trains which are still running and packed to-the-brim is certainly up for debate, but seeing as this is a football column and the writer has no medical expertise whatsoever, the rights and wrongs of cancelling games isn’t something that can really be addressed here.

What can be said is that erring on the side of caution is ultimately preferable to underestimating the consequences of a new and developing virus, and the J.League’s unprecedented joint task force with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) shows the organisation is doing all it can to ensure the issue is dealt with as effectively as possible.

The impact of the decision, however, is obviously far-reaching. Fans, media, and sponsors are all being negatively affected by the lack of regular games to provide entertainment, give them things to broadcast/write/talk about, or provide a return on investments, and the longer the break goes on the greater those frustrations will be felt.

It is the players who could be suffering the most though.

Professional athletes need to ensure they are in the best physical condition when competition comes around, and having spent pre-season working at building their fitness up towards the new campaign they are now being held in a strange kind of limbo after just one round of games.

Mentally, too, it must be incredibly difficult to maintain the right levels of motivation when there is no clear target in sight – and while perhaps unavoidable, the tentative re-start dates being proposed and then removed can’t be helping in that regard.

Pre-season training is often described as a tough slog, but it is at least endured with the aim of being in shape for the opening day of the season. With no-one currently knowing when they’ll be back out on the pitch, things must be very difficult – boring, even – for the players going through the motions at training right now.

J.League Chairman Mitsuru Murai

This disruption could also negatively impact them looking further ahead as well.

The J.League already had an intermission worked into this year’s schedule on account of the Olympics, with J1 set to take a month and a half off and J2 and J3 out of action for three weeks each. The latest is that those breaks will remain in place, meaning a lot of midweek rounds of matches will be needed before and after the Games – assuming, of course, that the Olympics themselves still happen – if the full season is to be completed as planned.

FIFA has no rules concerning how frequently games can be played, but recommends at least two days between matches. However, between 2007 and 2009 Dupont et al. analysed the effect of playing at the weekend and in midweek on 32 participants in the UEFA Champions League and noted in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010 that, “The recovery time between 2 matches, 72 to 96 hours, appears sufficient to maintain the level of physical performance tested but is not long enough to maintain a low injury rate.”

J1 teams had eight rounds of midweek games on the schedule for this season (three in the league and five in the ACL or Levain Cup), J2 clubs had four (nine for Matsumoto Yamaga, including the Levain Cup), and J3 two. The coronavirus interruption has already ensured that five J1, two Levain, six J2, and four J3 rounds need to be rescheduled, and looking at the calendar it is increasingly difficult to see how, even if things do resume at the start of April, all matches can be fulfilled without putting an undue strain on the players.

Cancelling the Levain Cup – or converting it to a straight knockout format, as in 2011 – has been suggested by some as an option, but while that would free up some time for most J1 teams it wouldn’t help those who also have ACL commitments, nor would it benefit anybody in J2 or J3 except the aforementioned Yamaga.

In such a situation, some thinking outside of the box may be necessary.

One approach that could be taken, for example, is to employ a similar system to that of the Scottish Premier League, whereby at a certain point the league splits into top and bottom halves.

For J1, this could mean each team playing each other once (17 matches) before breaking into a top nine and bottom nine. The top nine would then play each other once more to determine the champions and qualifiers for the ACL, while the bottom nine would play out their remaining eight games to avoid relegation. In J2 this would mean 21 games and then a split to top and bottom 11s (most likely cancelling the play-offs and only having two automatic promotion berths), while J3 would mirror the format of J1.

This suggestion of course has drawbacks – fans would have less games to watch, fewer home games would mean clubs losing out on revenue, rights holders would have less matches to broadcast – but in the current situation it is hard to envisage any perfect solutions, and flexibility and compromise are going to be vital whichever way the J.League ultimately decides to proceed.


Top 10 J.League Stadiums

In the nearly 11 years I’ve lived in Japan I have had the pleasure of seeing all but one of the current 40 J1 and J2 teams play at home (a trip to Ryukyu is in the pipeline), plus a handful of those in J3 as well. In their own ways each stadium I have been to left an impression and provided an insight into the culture of Japanese football, and I look forward to visiting several again – as well as some new ones too. The following, however, is my current top 10… (日本語版)

Football Channel 6th March, 2020

10: Shonan BMW Hiratsuka Stadium

Despite having a track (a huge drawback for any football stadium in the world), I always enjoy my trips to Hiratsuka. The walk from the stadium isn’t too taxing and helps build the tension ahead of kick-off – especially the final stretch, once you arrive in the park thriving with pre-game activity – and Bellmare do very well to capture the spirit of the Shonan area and imprint their identity on proceedings. It’s ageing and lacks the sparkle of plenty of new stadiums, but for me therein lies a lot of the charm of this venue.

9: Tochigi Green Stadium

Tochigi SC’s home stadium is another Japanese ground that has done very well to merge into its surrounding environment, nestled snugly amongst the trees in Kiyohara Kita Park. It’s not the biggest so would be tested if the club were to ever make it to J1 – and, aside from a token roof over part of the main stand, fans and media alike are left fully exposed to the elements – but for those fans looking for a scenic location to catch a live game, Green Stadium is a must-visit.

8: Ekimae Real Estate Stadium

An older venue with plenty of character, Sagan Tosu’s stadium is a striking structure I’d recommend anyone to visit. Almost unique in Japan in that it can be seen the moment you step off the train, the access is spectacular and the tall raking stands demand attention from the platform at Tosu station. Because of the way all four rise up so dramatically – they appear to almost be at right-angles to the pitch – supporters are incredibly close to the action, and when full this ground is capable of creating a really raucous atmosphere.

Tochigi Green Stadium

7: Best Denki Stadium

Best Denki is pretty much the perfect size for a J.League stadium. Looking rather like a small spaceship has landed in the middle of the woods, the curvature of the main stand is striking and draws you in as you approach Avispa Fukuoka’s home, and the sweeping arc looks even more impressive once inside. The fact the back stand mirrors the same design serves to enclose the pitch wonderfully, while the openness of those behind the goal frames things perfectly and allows just enough of the outside world to sneak in.

6: Fukuda Denshi Arena

JEF United’s stadium is, like so many other aspects of the club, J1 quality. ‘Fukuari’ isn’t blessed with picturesque surroundings like several other stadiums on this list, but after a short walk from Soga station you arrive at a compact, attractive, and atmospheric ground that most teams in the world would be proud to call home. Supporters are right on top of the action, and thanks to the roof encircling the whole venue, the atmosphere remains in the bowl for the full 90 minutes. A terrific place to watch football.

5: Toyota Stadium

The only giant venue on this list, Toyota makes an appearance thanks to its spectacular look and, for a super-arena, impressively close feel. To say it’s a pain to get to would be something of an understatement, but once on the nearby Toyota Bridge the trek out to deepest darkest Toyota all feels worth it and Nagoya Grampus’ home ground takes the breath away. It’s just as impressive inside, too, with the stands rising sharply up into the sky – or, in adverse weather, to meet the retractable roof that slots slickly overhead to seal the atmosphere in.

4: IAI Stadium Nihondaira

Nihondaira has almost everything required of a football stadium: a picturesque setting, a pitch that’s close to the stands, and a feeling of history. Shimizu S-Pulse haven’t been challenging for titles since the J.League’s early days, but the echoes of those glories seem to reverberate around this storied venue, which sits proudly on high overlooking its hometown. The view of Mount Fuji is the cherry on the icing on the cake, and ensures this ground should be on every groundhopper’s bucket list.

Yurtec Stadium, Sendai

3: Sunpro Alwin

There aren’t many stadiums in Japan that can generate an atmosphere quite like that at Alwin. Matsumoto Yamaga’s home ground acts as a beacon as you snake up the hill through Shinshu Skypark, and despite essentially being roofless the noise inside is something to behold. Supporters around Japan are frequently praised for getting behind their teams for the full 90 minutes, but Yamaga’s fans do so in such a visceral manner that this venue is one of the few in the country that must truly feel like an away game for visiting teams.

2: Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium

This may be a rickety old venue, but I would venture to say that without it Kashiwa Reysol would have been far less successful over the years. The walk to the stadium from Kashiwa station winds along streets strewn with Reysol yellow, and everything from the crackly PA system to the nets behind the goals serves to create an environment that embodies the identity of the club. Visiting teams struggle in this atmosphere, and part of Reysol’s soul would be erased if they ever left this home for a shiny new stadium.

1: Yurtec Stadium Sendai

There is something incredibly satisfying about watching Vegalta Sendai play at home. Yurtec Stadium isn’t out in the middle of nowhere like many grounds in Japan, but instead a straightforward five-minute walk from Izumi Chuo station. Upon arrival you encounter an attractive, well-proportioned, and atmospheric venue, and the manner in which it curves at the corners enables all four stands to merge seamlessly together and ensure the roar from the crowd echoes intimidatingly around. This is what every football stadium should be like.


Only one Olunga

Michael Olunga made headlines after a ludicrous goal-fest at the end of last season, but the Kashiwa Reysol striker is far more than just a ruthless finisher and brings everything needed in the final third… (日本語版)

Football Channel 29th February, 2020

Kashiwa Reysol wrapped up their title-winning J2 campaign with an outrageous 13-1 demolition of Kyoto Sanga on the last day of the 2019 season, and Nelsinho’s men still had their foot firmly on the pedal as they returned to the first division last weekend, defeating Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 4-2.

The breathless encounter at Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium saw Reysol stride into a 4-0 lead with 25 minutes to play, before Consadole mounted a rousing late fight-back to narrow the deficit in a game that produced 44 shots.

While Kim Seung-gyu made some exceptional saves to protect the three points it was ultimately Michael Olunga who was the difference maker for the hosts, with the Kenyan striker nigh-on unplayable for the Consadole backline as he scored twice and set up the opener for Ataru Esaka.

Olunga made headlines around the world after plundering a J.League-record eight goals in the aforementioned dismantling of Sanga last November – as well as providing two assists for good measure – but his contribution to Reysol’s title win went far beyond that outrageous individual performance.

Standing at 193cm the marksman unsurprisingly provides a focal point for the team’s attack, but physical presence alone isn’t enough to lead a forward line in the modern game – as fans of plenty of J.League clubs can attest to after seeing a long line of imposing strikers flounder about as the game goes on around them.

Concentration and anticipation are vital aspects of the 25-year-old’s game, and his movement and awareness while floating around in the spaces between the opponent’s defence and midfield means Reysol always have an outlet to turn defence into attack – or, more often, attack into goals.

It’s no coincidence that Olunga was unavailable for five of Reysol’s eight defeats last season on account of international duty or suspension, and his quality is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact he is now the key attacking player in a team still boasting the pace and power of Cristiano.

“In the box you have to anticipate anything,” he told me after scoring the only goal of the game in a narrow 1-0 win over Tokushima Vortis in May last year.

Football Channel, Saturday 29th February 2020

“The first time I headed the ball I thought it was going to go in, but the keeper punched it back so I reacted quickly before the defender and I slotted it in. I think for you to score a goal mostly as a striker you need to get into the box, and this is what the coach asked all of us to do.”

In Nelsinho, Reysol certainly have a manager who encourages his forward players to take risks and make things happen in and around the area, irrespective of the opponent or what kind of form the team is in.

That victory over Vortis, for instance, came in the middle of a dry spell for Reysol as they struggled to score goals or win games, but the tactics remained unchanged even as confidence and luck temporarily abandoned them.

“I think it’s more [mentality] because, if you look at today, we created maybe 10-15 chances but could only score one,” Olunga said when asked to explain a run of form that eventually saw Reysol find the net just seven times in a run of two wins in 11 games.

“I think when the team is not winning there is always pressure, especially on the forwards. I think the adrenaline when you are inside the box makes you maybe not have a cool shot or you are not cool in front of the goal so you end up missing the chances.”

A lack of composure isn’t something that can often be leveled at Olunga, however, and although supplemented by the almost-triple-hat-trick against Kyoto, a return of 27 goals from 30 games (28 starts) last season is not to be sniffed at.

He showed with his goals and all-round dominating display last weekend that he is not remotely daunted by the step back up to J1 – where he scored three times in 10 games (four starts) in 2018 – something that is hardly surprising of a player who has already made waves in Europe and scored a hat-trick in La Liga for Girona.

Indeed, it was something of a surprise when Reysol managed to keep hold of his services after dropping down to the second tier in 2018, and there were rumours ahead of this campaign that he may be enticed by a move back west.

In the end he renewed his deal with the Sun Kings, but if he keeps performing at the same level then that talk will surely resurface in the summer, with plenty of clubs sure to be tempted by his combination of strength, speed, and intelligence – but predominantly that ice-cold composure in front of goal.

For the time being it is still J.League defenders and goalkeepers who will be having sleepless nights about containing him though – and you have to feel sorry for Yokohama FC, who came up against Andres Iniesta on their return to the top flight last week and are next in the Olunga firing line on Sunday.

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May 2020