The day after the win over Tokushima, I drove the hour to the Tochigi capital of Utsunomiya to see what seems likely to be the next J. League team and the next Mito HollyHock rival, Tochigi Soccer Club. Currently second place in the JFL with just over half of the season left, that team is in great standing to end in the top four places required for promotion to the professional ranks. On June first they hosted last year's JFL champions, company club Sagawa Shiga SC.
I had hoped to see or meet quite a few people. Former Mito backup keeper Takeda is now Tochigi's backup keeper behind Kobari, famous for his great play with Verdy and then Sendai as well as for his thick red dreadlocked ponytail. The former stadium manager for Mito, named Nishimura, moved to Tochigi SC to managethe staff there. I wasn't able to meet either, unfortunately, and substitute Takeda never left the practice area. And, as mentioned before, there was a chance I could run into Mito midfielder Kento Hori, who said he would visit his former teammates at the game, but I wasn't in the same area.
I did, however, run into my former co-worker, midfielder Koji Fukusawa. He worked from being a practice player to starting matches within his first year, and from 2008 is a full time professional player on the club with a standardized C level Japanese professional player contract. I didn't know before his e-mail Sunday morning that he would not be on the field, as he took a red card in the last game. He would be at the autograph signing session instead, and I went early to try and meet him. I wasn't early enough.
However, upon entering, I saw him just behind a roped-off area, talking to fans. He was happy to see me approach (as we hadn't been able to meet face to face since I could attend a Tochigi practice session about 9 months earlier) and we started chatting. Within a few minutes I found myself sitting with the JFL match commissioners, Tochigi TV cameraman, and all the players sitting out for the day, viewing from the restricted area. While watching a great match, I had a few good conversations with Koji and his teammates on soccer in Japan. I'll try to remember the big points.
-Firstly, I mentioned how great it was to see so many at the stadium. Mito's meager attendance the day before still in my mind, I mentioned how so many of the little things were helpful in attendance, such as the free shuttle from the parking lot to the front of the stadium, the clear difference in value between ticket prices, and the logical layout that makes the experience from entrance to exit hassle-free. The answer I got was lamenting, on how the day's attendance was bad... I made a quick check at the website and saw Tochigi's average attendance, which is highest in the JFL and is more impressive than some J2 teams. Despite being lower than usual, Tochigi's crowd was three times the size of Mito's the day before.
-I was asked by two of the players about my Mito uniform (#47, 5 points to the first person who can guess why), and just said that while supporting Mito, I must also support Tochigi's promotion for the sake of having a new enemy to be friendly with. Actually, they asked me because they wanted to know about former teammates... Mito's new starters Arata and Kikuoka went to those players' respective universities, and just wanted an update on how they are doing.
-I mentioned to Koji that he would make a great fit at Mito and if he wanted me to put a good word in for him in case Tochigi doesn't get the promotion this year. He said that he knew Tochigi would do it, but in any case, the club treats him well enough for him to stay no matter what.
-The team travels by airplane for the away matches in Kyushu and Okinawa. Convenient, of course, but I don't know if it is a great idea when the club is a million dollars in debt.
-All the players agreed that Honda FC is the strongest team of the year. When I asked why Sagawa had fallen so hard in ability, it was mentioned that last year's strength came from three players, most notably Hori, and that when they turned professional the club went downhill fast.
-When I asked about a feeling I had that Arte Takasaki tried to lose the last game of 2007 against Gifu, a couple of the players said they heard something along those lines soon after it happened. (Last year, Takasaki was a distant last place at the end, while Gifu was on the edge of promotion. If Gifu won the match, promotion was guaranteed, and if they lost, there was a chance of staying in the JFL. Takasaki needed Gifu's promotion to create the open JFL spot and prevent relegation.) On a whim, I checked the results of Takasaki's match at the time, and found that they were about to win for the first time this year. The Tochigi players were shocked at this, and absolutely overjoyed at promotion rival Okayama's loss to Ryutsu Keizai University at the same time.
-After the game, several female fans came near the player area to talk to Koji, and there were some he recognized as well as new faces. He walked back with a smile and held four phone numbers and mail addresses. He said that one of the girls he knows asked who the Mito player was and seemed ready to write her number for me. He said that I was a friend and not a pro player, and she apparently quickly capped her pen and seemed disappointed. Japanese semi-pro soccer seems to have the equivalent of American independent pro wrestling "ring rats", and Koji does well for himself.
The game itself was exciting, yet poorly played by all the players without pro experience. As is common in Japan, Tochigi would win it in the last minute to send the fans as well as the players into ecstacy.
Another great day to make a great soccer weekend. It seems the other midfielder Kento on Mito's squad, former Verdy and Okayama player Tsurumaki, traveled to see the previously mentioned game between the university students and his former team. He was accompanied by midfielder Shiihara and keeper Harada, and if I hadn't gone to Utsunomiya, I would have gone there. It might have been a similarly good experience and I'd get to have seen another contender for J2 next year. Of course, I was glad to make the choice I did in the end.