Sunday, November 21, 2010

Honda FC 2 at FC Ryukyu 2 (JFL) - November 21, 2010

I'm in Okinawa, the southernmost island chain in Japan, famous for great food and warm weather. As Tokyo begins its descent into another dreary and depressing winter, I decided on a few days here to visit with friends and take a break from sports. Or so I thought.

Before leaving, I did a cursory check to see if the bj League's team in Okinawa, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, had a home game while I was here. They did not. So I figured I wouldn't bother with watching sports on this trip. That's when the sporting gods decided to remind me that there's always something to see.

Serendipitous Soccer

I took an early morning flight from Haneda, arriving at Naha airport at 9:30. From there, a friend rented a car and drove me to nearby Chatan Town where we met another friend for lunch. After a delicious meal of omutaco, we were leaving the restaurant when I spotted a poster for a local soccer team. Intrigued, I checked the schedule and was surprised to find there was a game that very day, starting at 1:00, or just about 45 minutes from then. Even more surprising, the game was actually in Chatan, and the most surprising fact was that the stadium was a mere 10 minute bike ride from where we were. I'm not one to quibble with the sporting gods, and my friend Jake said he would join me, so after dropping off my luggage, we rented some bikes and headed over to Chatan Park Stadium.

Turns out the local team is FC Ryukyu (Ryukyu is the old name for Okinawa) and they play in the Japan Football League (JFL), which is equivalent to the 3rd division here, underneath the two divisions that comprise the J League. In what was the last home game of the season, Ryukyu were hosting Honda FC of Hamamatsu, a city that is relatively close to Tokyo. As an aside, both teams lost in the second round of the Emperor's Cup this year, having qualified as their prefectural champions.

Chatan Park Stadium

Located right next to the Chatan Park Baseball Stadium, spring home of the Chunichi Dragons which I visited back in 1998, Chatan Park Stadium is a small facility with seats on only one side of the venue. However, you can sit on the grass surrounding the field and many people chose to do that as it was quite crowded in the stands, which are just benches anyway. The field itself is surrounded by a running track but the seats are still reasonably close. There is only one entrance and the stands are difficult to maneuver in once full, so I'd suggest getting there early if possible.

There's not much here otherwise, a few drink machines and food vendors just outside, but having just eaten, I didn't sample the cuisine here. Tickets were 1,500 yen and all seats are unreserved.

You'll need a car to get here and there was parking available but you can also park at the nearby American Village complex, which is perhaps the tackiest shopping mall I have ever seen. There are a couple of US bases close by and the area has been designed to appeal to Americans as well as Japanese. Worth checking out for the amusement value if nothing else.

Local solution to shading the camera

One interesting feature of the stadium is the large wind turbine standing at one end. It's rather surreal and I'm not sure why it's there.

The Game

I'll avoid any detailed descriptions at this point as I know so little about the teams or their players. There was a small program handed out that had the standings and showed Honda lying 4th in the 18-team table with 55 points from 32 games, while Ryukyu was 9th with 47. But that's about all the useful info I could glean.

By the time we had bought tickets and entered the stadium, it was already about 20 minutes into a scoreless first half. We found some seats down low as fans left room at the end of the benches, which we quickly usurped.

FC Honda attacking

It took a while to get into the game, but it became clear that Honda FC was the better team, with most of the game being played in the Ryukyu half. On the half-hour mark, Honda's Nozomi Nishi took what looked to be an easy shot from 30 yards out but Ryukyu keeper Yuma Morimoto was caught napping off his line and the ball sailed over his outstretched hand to give the visitors a shock 1-0 lead, which lasted until halftime.

I didn't think that Ryukyu had a chance after being dominated so thoroughly in the 25 minutes I saw, but as usual I was completely wrong. Within a minute of the restart, Ryukyu attacked and ex-J Leaguer Yoshiteru Yamashita tied the game. I was at the other end of the field and didn't see the goal clearly, so I'll be looking for some highlights later.

The teams had a more even second half, but Morimoto made a grievous error in the 77th minute, palming a Nishi header into the net that restored Honda's one-goal lead. Below are two shots: the first is Morimoto grabbing the ball; the second is the ball about to enter the net.

It looked grim for the home team but with just seven minutes left, Honda's Ryuta Hosokai made a foolish challenge that had him going over the top of a Ryukyu defender and landing on his head. The referee immediately showed a yellow card and then a red! Hosokai had committed another foul before we had arrived and now he was out of the game. Ryukyu had a chance!

Sure enough, just as the game entered lost time, Ryukyu's Kohei Tanaka (another one-time J Leaguer) drove a shot that deflected twice and somehow found the back of the net to tie the game. A stunning finish to the home season!

There were 4 minutes of lost time during which Honda had their keeper on offense (in pink above) during set pieces as they seemed desperate for the three points. But it was not to be and the game finished 2-2 in what was an entirely unexpected but exciting afternoon affair.


The general manager of FC Ryukyu is Philippe Trousier, who guided Japan at the 2002 World Cup. Seems like they are trying to gain promotion to J2 and having Troussier here adds an element of seriousness to their effort. Promotion requires a top-4 finish however, so it won't be happening this year.

There was a small cheering section for the home team but nobody on hand for the visitors, which suggests that the JFL is not worth a road trip. I heartily disagree and suggest that sports fans traveling to Okinawa try to time a visit to see FC Ryukyu in action.



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