Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vegalta Sendai 2 at Omiya Ardija 1 (aet) - Emperor's Cup 3rd Round - October 31, 2009

Back in August, I went to a ballgame in Omiya Stadium. Next door lies NACK5 Stadium, home of the J League's Omiya Ardija. From the outside, it looked like a nice cozy soccer venue worth visiting sometime. So when I saw that Ardija had an Emperor's Cup tie against J2 powerhouse Vegalta Sendai, I thought it would be a nice way to spend Hallowe'en afternoon. So off to Omiya I went.

The Emperor's Cup

Much like the FA Cup in England, the Emperor's Cup can be contested by any soccer team that is a member of the Japan Football Association. Each of Japan's 47 prefectures holds its own competition in which the champion advances to the first round proper of the Emperor's Cup, where they are joined by the national university champ. The 24 winners of the Round 1 games are then joined by the 36 J League teams as well as the top 4 teams from the 3rd-tier Japan Football League. These 64 teams then play a 6-round knockout system that culminates in the championship game played on New Year's Day in Tokyo. Counting the prefectural competitions, there are over 6,000 teams participating in the tournament, but coverage really only begins from the first round proper.

Unfortunately, the draw is planned out entirely in advance and in round 2, all the top-tier teams are given matches against the winners of round 1. In other words, two Round 1 winners cannot meet in Round 2. Since the smaller teams are guaranteed a tough opponent immediately, it is difficult for them advance farther into the tournament. Certainly there are some upsets (a team from Matsumoto defeated recent Asian Champions Urawa Reds last month and Meiji University won today over J1 side Montedio Yamagata) but it would be better if each round was drawn separately and completely randomly to give these lesser lights a chance at playing each other.

NACK5 Stadium

Originally known as Omiya Park Soccer Stadium, Nack5 Stadium is located on the southern edge of Omiya Park, next to Omiya Baseball Stadium. It was built back in 1960 for the Tokyo Olympics, where several early-round soccer matches were held. It was renovated in 1997 and then expanded a few years back when Ardija moved up to J1. Since then, it's been called NACK5 Stadium after a local FM radio station bought the naming rights.

It's about a 20-minute walk from Omiya station, passing through a nice tree-lined pedestrian path that approaches Hikawa Shrine. It's a beautiful walk when the weather is nice, as it was today. As you near the shrine, veer right and go around a bend in the road where you will see the stadium. There's no sidewalks in part of this area, which is surprising as pedestrians walk along the roads which must frustrate the local drivers after a game.

Approaching the stadium, you won't see much - mostly concrete and fences. But once inside, you should be impressed: this venue is the best soccer stadium I've seen in Japan (which isn't saying much, I've only been to 4). It's small and there's no track between the pitch and the seats, so you are right on top of the action. On the south side, known as the main stand, there's a roof covering some of the seating area, and the front row is about 10-12 feet off the pitch, so you have a great view from down low. On the north side, you are right at field level, and there's only about 10 rows there, so not a bad seat to be had. On either end are the supporters sections. In each section, the front part is for the serious cheering groups: there are no seats there, just standing spots where fans can jump and wave flags. Above that are seats for the less enthusiastic fans - they rise quite high and likely present a very nice view of the overall stadium. The west side houses the Ardija faithful while the visitors take the east side.

There's 5 ticket options: category 1 seats which are in the middle of the north and south sides, category 2 seats that are closer to the goals on these sides, and then category 3-5 seats that take up the end zones. Prices differ depending on the nature of the game, but today I sat in category 2 seats for 2,500 yen and highly recommend those to anyone going for the first time. All seats are orange, which is Ardija's colour, although on one side of the stadium OMIYA is spelled out with some white seats, on the other side it says NACK5 (below).

The stadium did not seem to allow for wandering around between the different areas, so I couldn't get a feel for food options. The one food stand I did visit offered chicken with corn chips and some small cake donuts, which were not bad and not overpriced.

Overall, NACK5 is what every soccer stadium should try to be: a soccer-only facility that allows fans to experience the action up close. Highly recommend soccer fans visiting Japan to include this venue on their must-see list.

The Game

Today was the 3rd round of the tournament and Vegalta Sendai were the opposition. Vegalta lies 2nd in J2, which means they will likely be playing in J1 next year. Omiya, on the other hand, are near the bottom of the table in J1, so despite the difference in leagues I was expecting a close match.

Happy Ardija players before the game

But Omiya was hot early and within 10 minutes had 4 good chances, including a couple that dribbled just wide. Although Ardija controlled the play, their lack of finish would come back to haunt them. In the 27th minute, a controversial free kick was awarded to Sendai just outside the Omiya box. The ball was headed by Sendai midfielder Shingo Tomita and keeper Koji Izumi dove to save it (shown below). But the ball bounced off the post to Yuki Nakashima who easily shepherded it home as Izumi lay far out of the picture. Here's a video on YouTube of the goal.

Sendai had a shock 1-0 lead, but it didn't last long. Just 10 minutes later, as Omiya defender Daisuke Tomita dribbled into Vegalta's box, he was tripped and fell to the ground. It was a stupid tackle attempt as Tomita was just barely inside the box, but it was a foul and therefore a penalty. Croatian Mato took the spot kick and made no mistake, depositing in the right corner to tie the match at 1 (below).

Sendai had another great chance just before halftime as Takayuki Nakahara was gifted a perfect pass as he ran into the box but he chested it to Izumi before gaining control and we went to the break knotted at 1.

In the second half, I still thought Omiya had the run of play, but at one point it was end-to-end action as both teams went for the winner. But neither could find the back of the net and we were headed for extra time as there are no game replays in this tournament.

Daisuke Tomita at the break

In the first half of the extra period, Sendai was again awarded a questionable free kick just outside the box. This time Ryang Yong-Gi took the kick and he was able to curl it around the wall (shown below) and just under a diving Izumi for the 2-1 lead. Silence hit the Ardija fans who could not believe what they were seeing. Sendai did not let up, almost adding another but they then wisely adopted a more defensive posture for the last 15 minutes. Omiya tried to equalize and had a few chances as time wound down, but they could not secure the necessary goal and the game ended with Sendai taking the upset.

There's no doubt that Ardija outplayed Vegalta for the most part, but they could not score during normal play, missing chance after chance. Sendai capitalized on two set plays and that was enough to send them on to round 4. This was a very entertaining game, helped by the fact that you can sit so close. The only negative were the Sendai players faking injury, which I'll talk about shortly. The refereeing wasn't that good either; I felt that a lot of fouls were questionable, particularly the one that led to the winning free kick. Without replay though, I'll never know for sure.

Still, it was a good afternoon and I'd like to go back again, if only to see a fuller stadium. As the early rounds of the Emperor's Cup are not considered a big event, only 5,489 people made it out, or about a 3rd of capacity. That left the cheering sections rather quiet, when I was expecting a much more raucous crowd.

Headed away

More Things I Hate

I love sports, but each game gives me something to hate. Soccer is no different, and without a doubt, my pet peeve in soccer is the biggest annoyance in all of sports.

What drives me nuts is when players are fouled and drop to the ground writhing in pain like they have been shot. The referee runs over, the player grimaces and rolls around some more, the ref calls for the stretcher, the player is carried off the field where, once off the stretcher, he miraculously recovers to re-enter the game as if nothing had happened. Have these guys no shame?

I think if the stretcher comes on and carries you off, you stay off for 5 minutes. Hey, I know it hurts when you get kicked. But be a man! Walk it off! The Sendai players did this so often I wondered if Vegalta was a Latin word for wuss (it's not, rather it's related to the legend of Tanabata).

These fake injuries disrupt the flow of the game and are only used to try to get yellow cards given to the opposition. And FIFA still yaps on about fair play. Maybe they should first put a stop to this tiresome act that makes the game anything but fair.

Next Up

More soccer next week as the ACL final takes place on Saturday night. It features Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia against Pohang Steelers from Korea. I'm just going to see what it's like - very curious how many fans from each side show up. Sunday I make a return trip to Todoroki, home of Kawasaki Frontale, to see them take on JEF United Chiba. Kawasaki are in first place with just 4 games left, so I'm going to watch a couple of games as they run for the title. Chiba, who I visited earlier this season, are on the verge of relegation unfortunately and this game could be the one that sends them down to J2. Updates will be posted next week.



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