Shimizu Impulse: Falling For The J.League

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: BARRY VALDER

After arriving in Japan with visions of ageing Western stars seeing out their careers in the J.League, it was quite an eye-opener for an English fan to discover a whole new football culture and a young, exciting league. It wasn’t long before he became one of the regular faces at Shimizu S-Pulse…

kokuritsu national stadium (1)

November 2003, and I’m propping up a bar in downtown Shizuoka city.

- “Shimizu Impulse?”

An inauspicious start to my career as a J. League fan – getting my team’s name wrong.

- “No, mate. Shimizu S-Pulse” my fellow Brit corrected me. “Fair enough, but what the hell is an S-Pulse?”

- “No idea.”

Having moved abroad, the first thing I did – like any Englishman in need of football – was seek out my new local team – just something to fill in the Saturday afternoons while I was separated from my “proper” team. What followed wasn’t part of the plan. Thoroughly seduced by the J. League’s charms, the last decade has seen a vaguely interested punter evolve into a fanatical Shimizu supporter, replete with a minor level of celebrity at their Nihondaira home as “that foreign guy”. What was meant to be one quick year in Asia has extended to over a decade, down in no small part to that irresistible team in orange: Shimizu S-Pulse*.

Yesterday and Today

Think of the J. League and, if you’re Italian or Brazilian, you may think of Jubilo Iwata, the club Toto Schillaci and Dunga helped to claim several titles in the late Nineties. With Ossie Ardiles having been in charge during one S-Pulse’s more successful spells, the Argentines amongst you might think of my own adopted team. As an Englishman, I always recalled Gary Lineker running around in the garish red and yellow of Nagoya Grampus Eight.

When I first stepped off the plane, the J. League was still only in its 12th year, but times had changed. The above image of Japanese football, one of ageing Western stars picking up a fat pay cheque in their twilight years, was already outdated. The reality is that few, if any, teams can currently afford the inflated wage demands of ready-to-retire superstars. You’ll find them more likely to head to China’s booming Super League or Australian’s A. League. The most recent big name to try out J. was Freddie Ljungberg in 2011. Life in Japan failed to meet his expectations and he was gone within six months.

shimizu spulse (1)

The league soon passed beyond the initial boom, with economic conditions reaching a nadir in the late Nineties. The low after the high was sufficiently severe to see one team unceremoniously merged with another (I use the term loosely because, as any fan will tell you, Yokohama Flügels was effectively dissolved). However, boosted by the 2002 World Cup, the situation recovered and stabilized, and currently the J. League operates on a solid business plan, within the present financial realities. Slow and steady expansion has seen the number of teams reach 40, and a third tier is due to kick off next year.

These days, the biggest names are the returning heroes from abroad. Shunsuke Nakamura single-handedly added hundreds to the average Yokohama F. Marinos gate, and Shinji Ono shifted merchandise to rival that of any overseas star when he moved home from Germany. The time will eventually come for Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda to return, and whichever team shells out for their wages will rake in millions via merchandising appeal.

Up Nihondaira Way

Shimizu S-Pulse never had been one of the big players at bringing in foreign stars. Unlike the remaining nine of the original 10 clubs, S-Pulse was not an ex-company team turned pro. This meant lacking the clout of a multinational’s backing. Mitsubishi? Nissan? Yamaha? All spawned readymade teams for the new league, complete with multimillion yen backers. S-Pulse was established by local companies and people, never quite enjoying the same financial advantages. Rather than players, their most well-known names would come from within the managerial record. Ardiles, for example, was succeeded by former Spurs team mate Steve Perryman.

Unaware of any of this in April 2004, when I was heading up to Nihondaira Stadium for the first time, my naive images of former Serie A and Premier League names flooding the pitch were blasted out the water. But as it turned out, my first game – Shimizu S-Pulse vs Urawa Red Diamonds – was a corker. 2-0 down at half time, S-Pulse rode out 4-3 winners. The boys in orange had staged a fight back after which it would have been perverse not to fall in love with them.

Nihondaira, in common with many of Japan’s stadia, lacks adequate protection from the elements, so my next game was spent huddled under a plastic 100 yen umbrella, attempting in vain to avoid the effects of a raging typhoon. To top off that soggy evening, visitors Cerezo Osaka poked home a late winner. It mattered not. The seeds of a love affair had been planted at that seven-goal thriller.

nihondaira stadium (1)

UK Ultras?

I was instantly hooked on the huge flags and unrelenting samba, but above all it was the sense of freshness that was most captivating; a new team and a clean slate, a world away from my native Brighton’s third-tier struggles. New stadia to explore (including some which had been burnt into England’s consciousness during the Japan/South Korea World Cup), some wonderfully named opponents, and a refreshingly laid back attitude to alcohol – it proved an irresistible combination. Discovering it acceptable to bring your own drinks, I began arriving at the stadium earlier and earlier. The couple of hours before a game usually spent down the pub got transplanted inside the stand, with a six pack and a pack of cards. After all, the season largely avoids winter by running from March to December, providing no shortage of long summer evenings.

For the next few years I would drag not-especially-interested friends up Nihondaira to enjoy the sunshine, beer and football. The UK Ultras website and accompanying books and t-shirts have all come about more recently, and for that you can thank the hospitality of one young fellow named Takumi. His innocent greeting lit the fuse which ultimately led to a well controlled habit exploding into full-blown obsession. Foreign faces are not uncommon at Japan’s soccer stadia, but my repeated presence would lead locals to strike up conversation, curious to know what kept bringing me back. In 2008 it went a step further as Takumi-san insisted I join his group nearby. As luck would have it they were some of the nicest people I’ve met, and over the coming months we developed into a loose gang, calling ourselves the UK Ultras.

A website to document our adventures followed, but with Shimizu depressingly disinterested in global marketing, it became a window for the world into S-Pulse. With that in mind, the focus has shifted more onto publicizing the team worldwide. Now into our sixth year, the UKU fly the flag all over the country, trying to have some laughs while we’re at it, which is not  always easy when in those six seasons they’ve seen zero silverware and witnessed four cup semi final and three cup final defeats.

The idea of our own ultras troop was always tongue in cheek, but soon developed a serious edge. We’ve covered thousands of miles and spent countless games together, endured numerous no-score draws, occasional on-field heroics and enjoyed some unforgettable away days.  Having been absorbed into a group of regular fans, I’ve been permitted to experience the J. League from the inside. The experience has ensured my affiliation for S-Pulse strengthened beyond anything that went before. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have believed that my support for Brighton could face competition, but fortunately, barring an unlikely Club World Cup meeting, I’ll never have to choose between the two.

It may be the dynamic nature of football in Japan – new teams joining the league, extra divisions being added, the continued strides made by national team – but 10 years have passed in a heartbeat.  The longer I stay, and the more I travel the country with my horde, the stronger my affinity to my club and home city becomes. Trekking eight hundred miles to Sapporo to stand and shout for Shimizu is these days as much about representing my home town as it is supporting the team. It’s become much the same as following my team around England. The same, but different.

The J. League is worlds apart from football in England. The fans are different. Very different.  Yes, they do spend the whole 90 minutes singing, not even pausing for breath when they concede a goal. Yes, there is a lot of arm-waving and scarf-twirling, and yes there is a far greater mix of women and children in the crowd. Banter between home and away ends may be largely lacking – anathema to most European fans – but with three points for a win and one for a draw, ultimately how different can football really be?

kobe homes stadium (1)

Since the league began, a lot has happened. What was once an ageing stars’ retirement home now couldn’t be further from it. This is a fascinating league, with good and improving native players. The limits placed on non-Japanese playing staff are unlike anything that could exist within the EU, but they guarantee the protection and development of local talent. Japan reaching the last 16 in South Africa was anything but luck, and the complaints about a lack of competitiveness leveled at some top leagues cannot be directed at J1; in the last 10 years, seven different teams have claimed the title.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When I first learnt of Shimizu, I’d have been incredulous at the idea of growing so wrapped up in their fortunes. It’s been a pleasure, but becoming involved to this degree brings with it an accompanying dilemma.  As time passes and the pull of my homeland grows stronger, at some point I will be forced to make a decision. Do I one day leave the team behind, deserting my brothers in orange, or do I elect to never regularly watch my old team again? This may well be the cause of sleepless nights to come.

As tough a quandary as it is, the UK Ultras are not about to fold up their flag any time soon. For starters there is the second half of 2013 to worry about. Right now we’re focused on enjoying the home games, covering as many away miles as possible and maybe, just maybe, someday seeing Shimizu claim their first J. League title. Recent finishes of ninth and 10th may not suggest it is coming soon, but an undeniable charm point of J1 is its unpredictability. Recent champions Nagoya, Kashiwa and Hiroshima can all be said to have emerged from relative obscurity to claim the title.

Early in my first season following Shimizu, I brazenly swore to stay in the country until I saw them lift the championship trophy. I may yet be here a while. But joking aside, S-Pulse have moved far beyond the point of novelty, and my life as a supporter in Shimizu has largely become football as usual, just in Japan. It’s an ongoing journey, and long may it continue.

*In case you’re wondering, S-Pulse is a combination of the ‘S’ from Soccer, Supporter and Shimizu, and the ‘Pulse’ of the city, beating to the samba rhythm of exciting football.

Barry Valder is the author of Watching Football In Japan. You can follow him on Twitter @spulseukultras
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