2009-10-25 Gainare Tottori 2-2 Arte Takasaki (Gainare’s road to J2, part one)
Posted by stefanole on 2009/11/06
Last Sunday saw me and Claire take another road trip, this time to Tottori. Our destination was the Tottori Bird Stadium, where we were planning on watching Gainare Tottori take on Arte Takasaki. More than that though, we were here to watch as a small town struggles to achieve its dream of reaching the J-League.
We took the “Super Inaba” from Okayama, which turned out to be comprised of only two cars. It was pleasant enough, although if I wasn’t in Okayama anyway, it would have been difficult to contemplate having to travel for over 100km just to make it onto the direct train. I don’t suppose the journey would have been much easier if we had driven: the near-deserted Tottori railway station suggested a town largely forgotten by the rest of Japan. The first residents we saw of Japan’s least populous prefecture were either selling handbags or manning the ticket gates, since Tottori doesn’t have any of those new-fangled electronic gates yet.
We found the shuttle bus to the ground by accident. Remembering the trouble we had at Osaka when we foolishly judged that a professional football club would have sufficient food outlets at the ground, Claire decided to stop off at the Lawson outside the south exit of the station to stock up. When we were finished I noticed a minibus had parked up opposite us, and this turned out to be the shuttle bus to the Bird Stadium. I anticipated there being a bus, since I had checked Gainare’s site beforehand, but I didn’t expect it to turn up at the opposite end of the station from all the other buses, and it appeared to be waiting at what is normally a taxi-stand (assuming that Tottori’s economy can actually support a taxi company).
The journey itself was unproblematic (and free, which is more than I can say for the ¥720 round-trip to the Big Arch from Yokogawa station). We were dropped off at the same part of the ground where the shuttle bus returns to the station at the end of the game (although luckily I realised that there are actually two shuttle bus lines in operation, so we were able to take the bus marked ‘Tottori Station’ in Japanese rather than the bus that was going somewhere else). I knew it was important to keep my bearings, because the Super Inaba service is so infrequent (in line with demand, but it was still a pain in the arse), and missing the train we wanted would entail a two-hour wait for the next train out of town.
The concept of feeding the attendees of sports events was evidently less alien to those in Tottori than it was to those in Osaka, as I was able to get some decent french fries (furaido poteto), and some kind of hot dog that was significantly less appetising than its implied German origins led me to believe. We were even given a bag of “new rice” with our matchday programme, though I haven’t bothered cooking that yet and probably never will.
The Bird Stadium itself was quite cosy, though the atmosphere did not quite give the impression that it was a well-attended game. Only two stands actually had seats, the two behind the goals given over to small terraces. It was at one end that the Gainare ultras looked fairly impressive, which admittedly was not difficult as they only had room to stand about four rows deep. At the other end though were two very forlorn Arte ultras, with a single banner and a drum. Claire did also spot a woman in the crowd wearing a red scarf, but since she was not on the terraces with the other two I didn’t think I could call her and ultra (and I’m not convinced that she was even there to support Arte; it might just have been an unfortunate choice of colour).
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to see, but the virtually empty away terraces told their own story. There were, including myself, twice as many amateur photographers messing around behind the goal than there were Arte fans. While this is surprising for a club that still professes a desire to gain membership to the professional J-League, a closer look at Arte’s history suggests that ambition alone is not enough. Its struggles contrast sharply with Gunma rivals Thespa Kusatsu, who were promoted to the JFL (J3) at the end of the 2003 season, the same year as Arte. However, while Thespa made the right friends and made it to the J-League on the first attempt, Arte suddenly foundered in the third division and could only watch as, over the years, the team was overtaken in the race to the J-League by Gifu, Kumamoto, Tochigi, Toyama and Okayama (who promoted to J2 on the first attempt in 2008). As their frustrated fans jumped ship to Thespa, now comfortably mid-table in J2, Arte are left to rue their missed opportunities and disorganisation. It now looks like Tottori may be the next team to leave the JFL behind, which means that Arte will have to make a more concerted effort to reach the J-League soon (i.e. next season, before J2 reaches its target of 22 teams). The alternatives are that they will either have to adjust to the reality of being stuck in the JFL, and hope that they can make the step up when the J-League expands with a third division (thus moving the JFL down to the fourth tier), or give up on professionalisation altogether (in the short-term at least).
As for Gainare, the club has actually been plying its trade in the JFL for some years now, the 2009 season being their ninth. Their promotion from the Chugoku regional league in 2000 apparently took the team by surprise, something which is unthinkable now that the regional leagues are starting to fill up with ambitious teams with the organisation to match. Accordingly, results in the JFL were poor, with Gainare actually managing to finish bottom in their début season (but they were not relegated, in line with the J-League’s planned expansion after J2 was created in 1999). In 2005 the club management (listed by Wikipedia as the non-profit Yamatsumi Sports Club, but I can find no corroborating English-language references) decided that they would begin the process of building a team for entry to the J-League, and targeted promotion by 2010 at the latest. As in Takasaki’s case, Tottori discovered that merely stating an intention to get to the J-League does not in itself bring success, and the push intensified in 2007 with the appointment of a new foreign manager. This appointment signalled the change in attitude the club needed to move up to the next level, and Gainare pursued more aggressively both young talent, as well as J-League players at the end of their careers. The bias was seemingly too heavy on the latter however, as Gainare finished in fifth after the 2008 JFL season, and seven players promptly retired (former Sanfrecce and Japan national team defender OMURA Norio among them). Two players who did not retire are YOSHINO Tomoyuki and TOMIYAMA Tatsuyuki, both important attacking players who stood out when Gainare went forward against Arte. The Sanfrecce connection has also been maintained, with UMEDA Naoya joining at the start of this season, previously of Hiroshima Minami high school and Sanfrecce from 2001-2003. HASHIUCHI Yuya, a young Sanfrecce defender, has also joined the team on loan until the end of the season.
The game itself was a noticible step-down in quality from the J-League games we’ve seen. “I guess these guys are in the right league after all” was Claire’s comment, as both sides seemed almost reluctant to play football. Indeed, we seemed to be just far enough down the football pyramid, that determination and the will to win would be enough to overcome. Pure skill and really intelligent football were in short-enough supply that it looked unlikely to save either team on its own.
What was really surprising though was what happened when Arte decided to attack. After five minutes of tame passes and running about with seemingly little aim, Takasaki seized the initiative with a darting attack up Gainare’s left flank. The result was a bizarre kind of confusion that culminated in a goal for Arte. The pattern was repeated throughout the match, with both sides looking vulnerable when the other decided to run at goal instead of trying a difficult pass that was just a little beyond their level of ability.
After the goal, the game settled back into a routine of Gainare counterattacks that usually petered out due to a wayward pass or because an attacker dwelled on the ball too long. One attack up the right side in the 18th minute was more effective however, as TOMIYAMA Tatsuyuki held the ball up until UMEDA Naoya was ready to surge into the penalty area. He managed to cut the ball back for captain YOSHINO Tomoyuki to strike from eight yards out.
Half-time came and went, but the action didn’t pick up again until after the hour mark. The introduction of Gainare’s Ivorian forward Kone HAMED was the spark that the men in green seemed to need, and his surging runs up the left wing unsettled Arte. The goal that followed was created by a fine piece of individual skill and technique, as SANENOBU Noriaki hooked the ball over his head and into the corner of the net.
The goal celebrations were quite effusive, and Gainare obviously believed they had this one in the bag. Arte were determined not to be dismissed so easily though, and their fightback was led by TANAKA Yasuhiro. It was less a case of a will to win as a will for revenge, as Tanaka was brought down to earth for several minutes by a stray Gainare elbow in the throat. The sense of injustice seemed to spur Arte, who stepped up their physical challenges and forward runs.
The equalising goal came in the last minutes of normal time. A high ball into the box saw Arte’s KOSHIBA Shota appear to foul OHARA Kazunobu by jumping on him. OKOSHI Takashi was the first to react to the loose ball, as he lashed the ball past Schneider in the Gainare goal.
I predicted to Claire that Takasaki would probably surprise Gainare again before the ninety minutes were up, but it’s still jarring when the atmosphere of the match evaporates after the home side’s fans don’t get the result they were anticipating.
Still, it was a valuable point gained for Gainare, and they have a golden opportunity to consolidate their position in the promotion zone against rock-bottom Mitsubishi Mizushima on Tuesday.
3,098 (Gainare need to average 3,000 for the season to be eligible for promotion)
SUGIYAMA 5′ (0-1)
YOSHINO 15′ (1-1)
SANENOBU 74′ (2-1)
OKOSHI 89′ (2-2)