Torii for Goalposts: Finding Football's Language of Community in Omiya

By Zack Goldman

CHAPTER I. Escaping Tokyo

Compared to the rest of Japan, Tokyo can sometimes seem more circuit-board than city.

The capital is a palpitating jungle, whose electrical, mechanical, and human energy is fed during the day through an impossibly dense network of thundering trains, crowded crosswalks, and Tetris-block skyscrapers. As night falls, this current is recycled through jazz clubs and karaoke bars whose strobes and signs bathe the city in a roar of cosmic light. Then, it happens all over again.

Tokyo, in this sense, is frequently depicted as a neverending flow of sensory traffic, and it’s an understandable appraisal given the ceaseless din and luminescence created by a culture of early-risers and night-owls. But, while the heart of the capital may be the sleepless, ever-churning epicenter of a gargantuan megalopolis, a short train ride reveals far more understated urban environments.

As one travels from the metropolitan core to the outer wards, and then further to the surrounding prefectures of Tokyo’s hinterland, a sense of serenity reappears that can seem elusive in the capital. While Central Tokyo has its quieter nooks, these reflective oases are encased in a grid of activity and bustle, and thus inevitably function as more of a ‘pause button’ than an ‘off switch’.

I needed an off switch. So, on this sunny May morning, I decided to escape Tokyo by venturing a half-hour north-by-northwest to the city of Omiya. There’s football here today, and that’s always enough of a reason for me.

CHAPTER II. To Omiya

On the way out to Omiya, the cityscape shrinks rather impressively in a matter of minutes as small houses replace skyscrapers. This circumambient city life is still city life, but its lungs breathe plenty of cedar, earth and stone. Omiya is now technically a ward of Saitama City, the tenth-largest municipality in Japan by population. It was, however, its own city until 2001, when it was fused with neighboring urban centers Urawa and Yono to create a capital for Saitama prefecture. While Omiya’s bustling train station and commercial center provide regional import, the area has little to call its own anymore. Most things here technically belong to Saitama—but not the local football club.

Omiya Ardija—or The Squirrels as they’re known—currently reside in Japanese football’s second tier. Like the names of many football teams in Japan, the club synthesized (and symphonized) a foreign word to describe a local phenomenon; in this case, ‘Ardija’ is a phonetic representation of ‘ardilla’ (‘squirrel’ in Spanish). This nickname is a nod to the woodland fauna that roam the park adjacent to Omiya’s football stadium—and those squirrels provide a rather poetic illustration of the club's identity: Small in stature, trusting, and community-oriented. The club is on the other side of Saitama from Urawa Red Diamonds, Japan’s most popular team, which regularly draws crowds of over 40,000 to the area’s winged behemoth of a stadium. Though it may seem strange for a small team to retain such local popularity with the nation’s superclub next door, Omiya proper is still doused in little Ardija’s orange and blue every Saturday.

As open and unpredictable as the country’s leagues have proven to be in the modern era, Ardija has spent the previous decade in brave struggle, barely surviving as consistently hard-battling, lower-table finishers in the J. League’s first division. In 2014, however, after beating the drop eight consecutive times, the club’s luck finally ran out, as despite securing a crucial victory at home on the last matchday, unfavorable results elsewhere consigned Ardija to relegation at the final whistle. It was a bittersweet end to their time in the top flight, but unlike the typical pattern in global football, a drop in league status hasn’t been accompanied by any recession of passion on the terraces or a dampened base of civic support.

Today, the club faces off against Giravanz Kitakyushu, a club from Japan’s southwestern tip, about 45 miles away. Their name, like Ardija’s, is also given meaning by foreign words: ‘Girasole’ and ‘Avanzare’, which mean ‘sunflower’ and ‘advance’ in Italian. Much like Ardija’s use of the squirrel as a local namesake, Giravanz references the sunflower, a prominent symbol of their home city.

The traveling contingent has arrived early to the area today, and so have I. It’s the end of Golden Week, Japan’s longest series of public holidays, meaning plenty of supporters and their families are en route to the stadium with time to explore. The ground is tucked away in a wooded neck of Omiya, about 25 minutes from the train station on foot. Along the way, I make use of my elementary Japanese (n.b.: this is a very generous use of the words ‘make’, ‘use’, ‘elementary’, and ‘Japanese’) and take pictures of both sets of fans outside of the Ardija team shop, which functions as much as a clubhouse as a superstore. This is a zone in which both groups of supporters, home and away, are welcome.

This is unsurprising because everyone here is predictably polite. While one can expect some degree of segregation, intimidation, or trepidation on a matchday elsewhere, there is no negativity or oppositional sentiment in the air—not even light-hearted banter. Everyone seems content to simply enjoy the match. Perhaps I shouldn’t find such a basic, convivial aim so peculiar, but it’s a bonhomie that seems almost entirely foreign to football these days.

 

CHAPTER III. Through the Shrine

The only way to get to the football ground in Omiya is through the shrine. This is fitting for a place like this, whose local stadium and sanctuary both celebrate the virtues of community, devotion, and harmonious coexistence. As I turn to leave the club shop, I’m greeted by a giant Torii, a traditional Japanese gate that marks the entrance to a sacred space from the world of the profane. (This makes it all the more disappointing that my abiding thought at this moment is something along the lines of: ‘Damn, it really does look like a big goal.’)

Behind this Torii, a lengthy footpath extends welcomingly in the direction of the Hikawa Shrine—a temple that has supposedly stood here since 473 BCE (or, for those of us who run our lives according to the football calendar, 2321 years before the modern laws of the game were codified). Prodigious elms form a natural pergola above, shielding fans from the sun as they walk together—or in the case of some children, ride on shoulders. As the shrine grows closer, the supporters ahead of me have yielded to perpendicular traffic, and our walk slows to a crawl.

We've come into contact with a wedding party. With bride and groom headed, presumably, for the shrine rather than the football match, the most peculiar walk of my life has begun to take shape. I am trodding along on a path, thousands of years old, alongside a traditional Shinto marriage ceremony, with two opposing groups of ultras, prior to a Japanese second-division football match.

CHAPTER IV. At the Game

NACK5 Stadium is built out of LEGOs. Sturdy and unremarkable, concrete and plastic, this open rectangular ground appears to be one of FIFA’s deliberately generic venues come to life. Four stands—two tall, two short—under four floodlights—all tall—nestled between staid suburbia and a peaceful grove. Red pines peak over the double-decker section where the home ultras stand and sing, and in spring, the stadium will be ringed with cherry blossoms that bloom during Sakura. It’s pleasant here.

The facility was built in 1960 and hosted matches four years later at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, thus writing Omiya into one of the nation’s proudest hours. The Games’ venues have a sanctity to them in Tokyo, but here in Omiya, there are no prominent markers of this history, even at the ground. Like so many things in this place that is now Saitama, the past still exists, but it appears, to an outsider, to lack much outward, localized fanfare.

For that Olympics, Omiya welcomed teams from across the globe, as the likes of Brazil, Mexico, Romania, and Iran all graced this very pitch. The stadium also played host to a quarterfinal between Ghana and the short-lived United Arab Republic, who triumphed 5-1 on the day.

Today, this stadium plays host to nearby visitors—but they are welcomed before the game like respected guests from a faraway land. During the pre-match festivities, the Ardija supporters have taken it upon themselves to applaud the traveling Giravanz fans, all clad in sunburst yellow. The Omiya ultras bow and beat drums in recognition of their supposed foes—who are surprisingly treated at this moment more as long-lost friends. The fans from Kitakyushu duly return this respect, thanking their opponents for their hospitality.

This is both strange and beautiful. While I keep waiting for the 'but'—the other shoe to drop—there is no caveat coming. For the next few hours, there is no profanity or provocative gesticulation between supporters groups; in fact, this will be the only time that the two sets of fans interact at all throughout the contest. The atmosphere is one solely characterized by a sense of kindness and a focus on one’s own team, rather than derision toward the opponent. Words can’t express how rare this steadfast positivity is in a sport whose modern spectatorial reality is one consumed by the allure of heckling, schadenfreude, and enmity.

Though the ground is beginning to fill up, Omiya and Kitakyushu are still about an hour from kickoff and another show has taken over the turf. I’m not used to seeing football matches with extensive opening acts—and I’m doubtful any in the future will live up to what I witness here. Two youth teams are playing a local championship game in front of a passionate crowd of neutrals whose cheers and gasps at every 50/50 challenge and shot on goal left me wondering if I’d actually bought tickets to the wrong match. Hailing from a country where youth football, even at its most elite, is almost entirely ignored on any scale of cultural relevance—local or national—this sight of thousands of eyes deeply drawn to the spectacle was impressive to say the least. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the youngsters, who upon finishing the match and collecting their medals, bow to the crowd. 

After doing a lap around the stadium, I’ve procured a Bento box and a soda pop—a delicious and filling lunch for around $5—along with a set of Omiya Ardija sweatbands. Nobody really needs sweatbands—they serve a limited enough purpose in life as actual athletic accoutrement, but seem even more absurd given my current state as a spectator in a pretty mild weather situation—but I’ve bought them anyway because (a) They were on sale; (b) I’m American; and, (c) I felt pretty left out given that nobody else in any of the four stands is dressed neutrally. Everyone literally—but only in that way that people now mistakenly use the word ‘literally’—looks like a walking club shop.

As I pull on a wristband, the elderly man next to me nods to signal his approval at my choice to support Ardija today.

I clearly don’t belong here, but I have been accepted. I am one of the family. I am a grown man watching a football match with wristbands on.

CHAPTER V. The Opening Whistle

When attending matches at any of the stadiums I’ve called ‘home’ over the years, my thoughts are generally fastened tightly to the field of play. The more I travel to watch football as a neutral, though, the more I find the match is often not as interesting to me as the people and venue surrounding the action. That was the case in Omiya. With few serious attacking inquests in the opening stages of the match, my eyes wandered to each group around me.

To my left: The elderly man, attending the game by himself. To my right: Five male young professionals, all clad in button-down shirts, carrying matchday passes on lanyards, and drinking beers served in tall cups that look more suitable for sodas. In front of me, about thirty feet toward the pitch: Two young boys in the front row—one with a stuffed fox and the other with a plush anteater. Each time star player Akihiro Ienaga carries the ball down the flank, dribbling at Giravanz’s left-back, the battle on the pitch is merely in the background; I’m too busy focusing on the other clash at hand—the one between animals in the front row. When the children need to go to the bathroom during the half, their mother leaves an open bag on her seat without a second thought.

Throughout all this, there is noise, but very little emanating from our small village of seats—apart from the five men who are growing slightly louder with each Asahi. As the half goes on, I can’t stop looking to my left at the blur of orange and blue behind the Ardija goalkeeper. The endline stand has been bouncing for the last hour—since well before kickoff—and the percussive thuds of hands and drums are reeling me in. I want to meet the ultras.

So, at halftime, with Ardija up 1-0 thanks to an unlikely headed goal from the 5’7”, 36-year-old Ryuji Bando, I make my way over to them. I expect to find the usual crowd: A mass of passionate—some might even say angry—young men. What I find, as I take my place in the very last row of the lower section is, surprisingly, made up of a group exactly like the one I’ve just left.

This thundering mass is composed of children, grandparents, and everything in between. A family of four to my right invites me to stand with them. Moments later, they are all caroming up and down, singing songs at the top of their lungs, presumably only hours removed from a very calm breakfast together. A bit to my left, a few rows down, there’s a man who stands apart from this sea. He’s not bouncing up and down, nor is he bellowing tunes. Instead, he’s gently rocking side-to-side—and that’s because his infant daughter is asleep on his shoulder.

It’s becoming apparent this isn’t like the other curvas of the world that I’ve been in. This isn’t even a supporters group. This is a census. This is a community center. This is a family home.

CHAPTER VI. On Screamers

Among football’s many great truths, this might be my favorite: Not all goals are created equal, yet they all count the same.

It’s platitudinous, yes, and in many ways sinful to verbalize given this game’s famous reputation as being the most beautiful, but I find charm in the fact that the scrappy, the mundane, and the vanilla are equally foundational to football as its flash and delicacy. That being said, as much as I have time for the tap-ins and the near-post flicks of this world, there is nothing on this big blue marble like a screamer from beyond the pines. And in the 67th minute, I am treated to an absolute beauty.

The most enjoyable part of a long-distance goal is, of course, the shot itself; however, a close second comes after the fact—whether in instant replay of the television or the human memory—when one recounts the sheer impossibility of the event just seconds ago. The shot is catharsis. The early moments of buildup, those innocuous beats prior when no signs of danger are present in the eyes of the defense—that’s real pleasure to reflect upon.

In this case, the seconds before impact see the ball in central midfield with Takuya Wada, who is looking to spray it wide to right-back Daisuke Watabe. Unconvinced that enough space is available to play a lofted ball laterally, he decides instead to pass across to Brazilian midfielder Carlinhos, who is over his right shoulder.

Carlinhos settles the squared ball with two quick touches—his first uncharacteristically sloppy—and a Giravanz defender approaches. The Omiya man picks his head up, looking for a passing option, but doesn’t find one, and fakes a shot to buy some space. The defender bites, flinching as he flicks his leg outward, and offers Carlinhos a meter he wouldn’t have otherwise had. The Brazilian takes a touch to set himself up and then rifles the ball from 35 yards with his left peg. His foot comes whipping over the top of the ball as he strikes, but he initially digs under it enough that it’s produced a furious top-spin. The keeper gets his right glove to it, but it’s to no avail. The violent momentum has carried the ball into the back of the rippling net.

As Carlinhos runs toward the crowd, which moments later will sing his name, he puts his hands together, and—though I’m currently immersed in a euphoric, remarkably unsweaty blur of orange—I catch out of the corner of my eye that this gesture is actually in the shape of a heart.

This is significant.

Carlinhos is the only foreigner on the pitch today. I don’t mean to say he’s the only foreign starter for Ardija; I mean he’s the only person on the actual field this afternoon—out of both teams’ starters, substitutes, coaching staff, and technical personnel—who isn’t Japanese.

Lately, that’s become a big deal as nationalist sentiments find their way into the stadium here, albeit in a limited capacity. Just a few miles away, Urawa Reds became famous around the world last year for unfurling a banner that read ‘Japanese Only’. While the J. League and the club’s brass should both be praised for their emphatic response to the event—the club accepted a rather large fine and briefly played behind closed doors as punishment—it does bring to the fore the cruel reality that xenophobia and prejudice are everywhere in this supposedly ‘beautiful game’.

The most effective response to this, however, isn’t sanctioning, in my opinion—though that’s certainly more welcome than the alternative of silence and inactivity. To truly heal such ills, change must come from within the fan sections of Japan—and it must come in the form of vocal and determined expressions of love for diversity, and in the bold and unqualified respect for other backgrounds. Carlinhos formed a heart with his hands for a group of fans who have loved him—and loved him knowing how he might be treated in stadia not far away from their own. As Carlinhos is mobbed by his teammates, a man a few rows in front of me vigorously waves a Brazilian flag as though it were his own home nation's.

As someone from across the globe, who has wandered on a whim into a stadium and been accepted with open arms, this moment is not lost on me.

CHAPTER VII. Back Through the Torii

In the aftermath of the goal, I am taking pictures of the gentleman to my left. I have a horrible habit of documenting life so meticulously that I often feel incapable of truly experiencing it and processing moments to the fullest. Paradoxically, in my bid to defeat this world's ephemerality with SD cards and notebooks, I often ruin its ability to imprint itself on my memory and spirit. This is irony, and it’s also a problem. I know that a record of life not fully lived is no record at all.

Thankfully, at this moment, the man next to me has put out his hand and gestured for a high-five—and that’s broken the spell. I’ve taken my hands off the camera; it’s now hanging around my neck.

To me, there are few things more satisfying in this life than sharing a high-five with someone I don’t actually know. I recognize how heinously simple-minded that may sound, but to be able to celebrate a moment with a stranger, while triumphing over the gulf of languagelessness and unfamiliarity between us, is, in my mind, a very beautiful thing. And, so, in the 67th minute, I had one of my best-ever high-fives. It came with someone whom I will probably never see again, but will always remember—and at that moment, I began to feel accepted in a way that perhaps only one person in the stadium knew: Carlinhos, the goalscorer, himself.

Twenty-three-ish minutes later, the final whistle blows. Omiya have won, 2-0. Afterwards, the players congratulate each other and slowly mosey to the end-line where the cheering crowd, filled with dreams of promotion, begins to serenade them. Once the song finishes, both sides—those on the pitch and those on the terrace—applaud each other and bow.

The respect here is incredible—not just between the players and the supporters, but between the supporters and this place. As the players depart for the locker room, the fans stay behind to clean, picking up rubbish from the seats and floors, which they’ll put in the bins surrounding the stadium. Some may find it hackneyed, but the feeling is similar to any shrine in the country. This is a house of respect, of unity, of recognizing, accepting, and cherishing energy and spirit.

As I exit the ground, I feel weightless in a way I’ve rarely experienced. I am utterly drained and utterly alive all at once, and upon reaching the shrine, I begin to realize—as much as I’d like to admit otherwise—that’s as much dehydration as the thrill and enlightenment of the last three hours. Thankfully, this being Japan, I know there’s bound to be a vending machine near this ancient holy site. I find one easily, purchase a chilled milk tea—my 478th in the past 24 hours—and take a deep swill as fans shuffle around me, walking in the direction of the giant Torii. 

Words and photos by Where Is Football's Zack Goldman.

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