Posts tagged Soccer

I hurt all over.

I had to play soccer the other day. The school had a ball sports day, which meant that the first- and second-years students spent all morning playing in a soccer tournament and the winning team played a teachers team in the afternoon. I was on the teachers team.

I was asked to be on the teachers team in the morning, when I arrived at school, the morning after my wife and I had decided to have an impromptu drinking session, even though it was a Monday. I wasn’t especially hungover, but I had drunk pretty much a full bottle of wine the night before, so I decided I better shelve my plans to check out the new McDonald’s California Burger as a nutritional precaution.

It was the least I could do. I haven’t played football for several years now, and the last time I did it was as the captain of a very makeshift five-a-side team which played for charity. I don’t remember ever winning a game except against a team of mentally handicapped players who could only run in straight lines. I don’t think I am besmirching the mentally handicapped players too much when I say that we were rubbish.

So anyway, I turned out for the teachers team in my running shorts. The girls all took photos on their phones while the boys all sniggered as I took to the pitch to play the winning team of first-years – who had (thankfully) already played about five games that morning. I think there were about nine players on each side, but I really don’t know because once the action started, I just concentrated on standing in the right-back position and standing in the way of the ball or the opposing players.

There were a couple of ringers on both sides. One of the teachers used to play professionally for the local team, although he didn’t play for the whole match because of injury. And one of the first-years plays for the same local team’s youth team – in fact he demonstrated his skill by scoring two glorious goals: one, a low drive from distance that snuck into the corner of the goal; the other rising to meet a sweet cross with a great header. (I was blameless for both, obviously.)

In the end, the game went to extra-time and penalties. When it came to the penalties, I skulked around trying to look inconspicuous, which worked until it went to sudden death and the spectating students started chanting my name. The next day one of the other English teachers displayed a charming naivety about the rules of football. “You played very well yesterday,” he said. “All of the students thought so – they were calling your name! Amazing!”

Except, of course, the reason the students were calling my name is because it was sudden death penalties and they were hoping I’d fuck up. I didn’t disappoint, belting the ball straight at the keeper. Fortunately for me, and the rest of the teachers, I hit it so hard the keeper spilt it over the line, and we won, a glorious victory of wisdom over youth – 30-year-olds over 16-year-olds. Take that students!

The next day, that English teacher wasn’t the only one to comment on my performance. The principal also came over to tell me that everyone thought I had played like David Beckham. By which he presumably meant, as my sister pointed out, that it looked like I’d just suffered a career-threatening injury.

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Football

In the same week that it all kicked off after West Ham and Millwall kicked off, I went to see a football match in my new home. I went to see my local team: Kofu Vanforet (named after the war banner of Kofu’s most famous historical figure, Takeda Shingen).

Vanforet

Football is a bit different in Japan.

For a start, we got there about an hour before the game, and so did everybody else – after paying about a fiver to get in. I mean we actually got to our seats about an hour before the game – not a nearby pub – and instead of drinking aggressively until the last possible minute before kick-off, we chatted over a leisurely beer and soaked up the atmosphere. And what an atmosphere: as the evening faded gradually into night, the floodlights came on and a cool breeze blew in off the mountains, visible in the distance silhouetted over the opposite stand. It felt like an occasion.

It wasn’t really; it was just a second-division kickabout. Nobody seemed to tell that to the players, however, who came out before the game and bowed to the fans before resuming their warm-ups, and as each player’s name was read out and their photo and stats shown on the big screen, the fans sang a different song for each one. Nobody had told the ballboys, either, who took up position around the centre circle and bowed while the medical teams did a lap of honour shortly before kick-off. And the pre-match activities were only complete when the teams lined up on the halfway line, like it was an international match or something.

As far as the crowd was concerned, it might as well have been an international: one entire section of the crowed sang for the entire game, pogoing in unison for 90 minutes without pause, while some of their number waved enormous pennants to an unceasing drumbeat. Over where I was sat, things were a bit more sedate, but I was struck by the real range of people who were watching. I was watching the game with another teacher from my school, who has been a lifelong supporter of the team. He was there with his wife, and we bumped into his cousin, but the real surprise was that we also met his mother, who must be in her eighties. And she wasn’t alone: there were both women and old people in abundance. Though English soccer is often proclaimed to be a family sport, I’ve never seen such a wide representation of different ages as at this match, and the results were a much more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.

I understand the historical reasons for the different demographic. And I’m sure there’s something to be said for paying 30 or 40 quid to watch some lower league hackers hoof the ball around while their fans take their tops off and make slitting-throat gestures; or sitting in silence in case the home fans realise that you’re sitting in the wrong section of the ground; or paying more and watching a bald-headed Chelsea fan encourage his daughter to swear at the ref. It’s just that at the moment – basking in the afterglow of the festival atmosphere at Vannforet – I can’t think what it could be.

As for the football: at the highest levels all football tends to blend together in a sublime mixture of skill, organisation and fitness. At the lower levels, though, the differences become increasingly apparent. Compared to the directness of British football, Japanese football feels more South American (indeed my local team, Vannforet, actually has three or four Brazilians on its books). There is a lot of quick, short passing, and plenty of individual technique. In front of goal, though, they lacked finish and seemed reluctant to actually shoot. In the end, the game was decided by the ref, who awarded two dodgy penalties and then failed to award one for the only real claim. In fact, in a match that was played in a good spirit, with few fouls and few bookings, that was the only point of controversy: when a Vannforet player was kicked in the chest in the penalty area in the dying minutes of the game, the ref blew for full time, instead of for a penalty.

So, dodgy refs. Along with the dodgy toilets (the only sign of football squalor in an otherwise immaculate stadium), some things are the same the world over.

Vanforet 2

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