Archive for October, 2012

Paju Citizen v Cheonan, Saturday 20th October 2012, 5pm

October 31, 2012

After watching the match between Jungnang Mustang Chorus and Namyangju United earlier in the afternoon I crossed Seoul on the subway, arriving at Geumchon station just before five o’clock. The game wasn’t scheduled to kick off until seven and so I thought I might as well just walk to the stadium. It’s easy enough, you come out of exit one, cross the road and continue in the same direction along the main road for about twenty minutes.

When the road starts to bear around to the left, take the immediate left down a side street and you’ll stumble across the ground sooner or later.

It’s not quite Ordnance Survey standard but it should get you there.

Paju is only a few miles from the border with North Korea and so I’d expected to see quite a sizeable military contingent. I was wrong in my assumption though and the only uniformed presence I spotted were these two old fellas drinking soju outside of a convenience store. If the North are ever going to make their move, I’d suggest targeting Paju on a Saturday tea-time.

Corporal Jones and Private Godfrey at the ready.

As I got close to the ground I noticed that the floodlights were already on. No real surprise there as the sun was starting to go down and they would need to be on well before kick-off. What was more unexpected was that I could hear shouts, chants and someone blowing a whistle. Oh dear. Either the police were breaking up a demonstration or the game was already underway.There was a gate open behind one of the goals and I walked in to find the match in progress. The scoreboard was showing thirty-seven minutes had been played, hopefully of the first half.

The view from the gate I went in through.

The scoreboard was also showing that the game was level at a goal each. As I hadn’t seen either of them I’ll assume that Paju’s was a screamer from outside the box, similar to the one Emerson scored against Sunderland, whilst Cheonan’s effort was just like Terry Cochrane’s overhead kick against Swansea. Only better.

The stadium is a fairly typical example of a Korean multi-purpose ground. A mainly open bowl with limited covering down one side and a running track separating the spectators from the pitch. An interesting feature of this ground though was the view of some graves up on the hillside behind the goal to my left. It also has a caldron for a flame, which would come in very handy should Jacques Rogge ever decide that Paju would be an ideal choice for staging the Olympics.

Hillside graves.

Paju were in green shirts whilst Cheonan were in orange.  I’d estimate that there were probably around a hundred people there which isn’t bad for a game that had kicked off two hours earlier than advertised. Initially I’d thought that the two sets of half a dozen ultras a hundred yards apart were each supporting Cheonan until I eventually realised that the only home fan to wear any colours had decided to wear his orange away shirt. His green shirt must have been in the wash.

Some of the Paju fans. Most of them actually.

A few minutes after I’d arrived the ref blew for half-time rather than full-time and I was able to sit back, crack open the first can of the day and await the second half. Paju have had a decent first season in the Challengers League but are just starting to slip a bit. I saw them drop two points away at bottom of their section Goyang a few weeks ago and if they really wanted to remain in contention for a play-off spot then they needed to beat a Cheonan team that had nothing to play for.

Both teams had their chances early in the second half, but it was Paju who managed to take the lead on the hour. Cheonan failed to get anywhere near a corner and Kim Su Won headed the home side in front.

Two – One.

Cheonan were still squabbling amongst themselves a couple or minutes later and Paju quickly grabbed a third goal. The sudden capitulation seemed too much for the visitors and their left back was sent off soon after. He stomped off, throwing his shirt down Keegan-style.

The ten men were able to keep the home side at bay for the next quarter of an hour but then Yoon Seok Hyun went through the back of a Paju player and picked up his second yellow to reduce his side to nine men. He was a bit more reluctant to leave the field than his team-mate had been but eventually left after angrily booting a water bottle into orbit.

“It’s so unfair!!”

In the re-organisation that followed, the lad who got subbed showed a similar level of frustration at having to leave the field and he too launched one of the water bottles.

With seven minutes to go Paju striker Yang Hyo Jik somehow managed to nip between a Cheonan defender and the keeper to stroke the ball home and make it 4-1. The beaten keeper Woo Tae Shik must have said something to the ref and he got a straight red for his trouble. Cheonan didn’t have a substitute keeper and so outfield player Kwon Tae Joon had to go in goal. Unfortunately Woo Tae Shik had buggered off with his goalie top and in the absence of a spare, Kwon had to make do with a training bib.

It’s what all the best dressed goalies are wearing this year.

It was still 4-1 when we reached the ninety minute mark and with Cheonan’s remaining eight men obviously well beaten it seemed a bit mean for the ref to add another five minutes on. Paju took the piss a little and missed an absolute sitter before a three against one break led to their fifth. That was enough for the ref to put Cheonan out of their misery and call a halt.

That’s enough.

The win moved Paju up the table from fourth to third and kept their play-off hopes alive whilst Cheonan remained second from bottom.

Jungnang Mustang Chorus v Namyangju United, Saturday 20th October 2012, 1pm

October 29, 2012

My main plan for the day involved watching Paju Citizen play Cheonan in the Challengers league. That game wasn’t due to start until seven in the evening though and so I had enough time to take in the early kick-off game between Jungnang Mustang Chorus and Namyangju United as well.

It’s a one hour ride from Yeoksam to Yangwon subway station. Then if you come out of exit two and turn left, it’s another five minutes walk past the Jungnang Camping ground.

On the subway.

I’d been to see Jungnang play earlier in the year. It was their second game of the season, their first ever season, and life was looking rosy for them. They won that game to make it two victories from their opening two fixtures and I suspect at that time they thought that they would be on for a decent season.

They’ve slipped a bit since then though and you could make a case for them being the third worst team in the third tier. The good news for them today was that they were playing a side that are generally regarded as the second worst team in the league, Namyangju. The visitors had lost all of their previous fourteen games, with their last victory coming as a consequence of being able to face Seoul Martyrs, undisputedly the worst team in Korea.

I arrived just as the teams were lining up for the handshaking. The weather was much nicer than the last time I’d been here, it had snowed then whilst today was a sunny autumnal day.

View from the far corner.

There were about a hundred people watching, mainly old blokes, but the odd family or group of kids. There weren’t any of the fans that you might class as ’ultras’ and so we had no singing or drums. In fact, the only real crowd noise that we got was a collective “Aaiiisshh“ whenever Jungnang missed a reasonable chance.

That’s about half of the crowd.

The opening exchanges were fairly even with both sides showing plenty of intent to get the ball into the opposition box. Namyangju, in black and white stripes, hit the bar after ten minutes whilst Jungnang, in yellow shirts and black shorts, replied in kind a little later.

Jungnang on the attack.

As we approached the half-hour mark Jungnang broke the deadlock when Yoon Pil Joo took advantage of a sloppy Namyangju backpass and rounded the keeper before rolling the ball into the empty net.

A few minutes later the home side doubled their lead. A deep cross towards the back post found some player whose name I don’t know in plenty of space and he finished well as a Namyangju defender desperately tried to get close enough to get a foot in.

Two – nil.

Kim Jong Chul was the pick of the Namyangju players. He’s a slightly overweight striker who you just know will have been the best player at every team he’s ever played for since being a small child. Sometimes though, that’s not enough to make it to the top.

Star of the show for Jungnang was one of their defensive midfielders. I don’t know his name so I’ll just call him Doh Rhee Vah in tribute to one of the less lauded members of the Boro’s Carling Cup winning team. Neat and tidy, he was always there to take a pass or put a foot in. He’s cleverly dyed his hair orange so that when combined with his yellow shirt he can ghost in unnoticed against the autumn foliage backdrop and nick the ball away from an opponent who won’t have seen him coming.

Kim Jong Chul practices his horse dance as Doh Rhee Vah appears from nowhere to steal the ball.

Namyangju kept the score down to two until the sixty fifth minute. A free-kick was floated into their box and it bobbled around for longer than it should have before Jeong Seong lashed it home. Yoon Pil Joo then added a fourth with fifteen minutes to go by cutting in from the left and curling a right-footed shot into the far corner. Someone else got a fifth. I’d given up keeping track by that stage.

That’s how it finished. Jungnang gave their flagging season a timely boost whilst Namyangju extended their losing run to fifteen. The good news for them is that in two weeks time they will get another crack at a Seoul Martyrs side that were beaten 17-0 later in the day. Imagine trying to keep up with the scorers in that one.

And so with my attention turning to Paju v Cheonan I strolled back down to the subway station for the journey across town.

SK Knights v Incheon Elephants, Saturday 13th October 2012, 2pm

October 26, 2012

This weekend saw the beginning of the basketball season. Autumn is almost upon us but it was still a warm sunny day as I made my way to the Jamsil Student Gymnasium for the game between SK Knights and Incheon Elephants.

It was quite busy outside, with plenty of old biddies selling food and drink. I bought a ticket for the second tier, near to the half-way line, for thirteen thousand won.

Chestnuts, gimbap, water and beer.

As the teams warmed up I recognised Aaron Haynes amongst the SK players. He had played for LG Sakers last season. I thought that he’d done ok with them so it was surprising to see him take a step downwards to the team that had finished bottom of the league. SK Knights are now the fourth Korean side that he has played for so I presume that he must like living over here. He went on to have a reasonable game, scoring sixteen points during his time on court.

Aaron Haynes gets the season started.

The second non-Korean player for the home side was Chris Alexander. He’s a 7’1“ centre who also turned out for the Sakers last year. As with his teammate Haynes he’s also been around the world a bit, with stints in China and the Philippines as well as a spell with the USA –D League side Sioux Falls Skyforce. As the second choice non-Korean he only played thirteen minutes but was able to contribute a relatively impressive eleven points.

Chris Alexander collects a rebound.

Carlos Powell was the first choice foreign player for Incheon. He’d played for them a few years ago before returning to Korea this season. If ever the term globetrotter was to be applied to a basketball player outside of Harlem it would be him. Apparently he has played in Portugal, New Zealand, Ukraine, Iran, Israel, China and Germany as well as the USA – D League. He rattled home twenty two points in his twenty seven minutes on court.

Carlos Powell (Number 15)

Fellow American DeAngelo Casto made up the quartet of non-Koreans. He’s only twenty-two and left college a year early to go and play in Turkey last season. He didn’t make as much of an impact as Powell but still contributed six points from his twelve minutes playing time.

So, that’s the introductions out of the way. As for the game itself, it had the most exciting finish I’ve ever seen. In basketball that is, obviously I’m not counting Massimo’s injury time winners against Basel and Bucharest.

As the game went into its final minute SK were a point ahead, 79-78. They managed to keep it that way and with ten seconds remaining Incheon gathered themselves for one last play. Carlos Powell waited until there were only a couple of seconds to go and then drove at the basket. The shot went up, hit the rim and bounced back out. As the players scrambled for the loose ball the buzzer went for full-time, 79-78 to SK Knights.

SK Knights celebrate their victory.

The music started, the streamers were released from the ceiling and the cheerleaders dashed onto the court to celebrate with the SK players. After what must have been around thirty seconds it became apparent that the Incheon players were protesting that one of them had been fouled somewhere in the last play. The officials went over to the fellas sat behind the desks and a few moment later the clock was reset to show 1.2 seconds remaining.

What’s going on here then?

It was SK’s turn to protest at that point, but it made no difference. The cheerleaders had to sit back down and the bloke with the brush came out to sweep up the streamers. Incheon were given the ball at the sideline, it was tossed to a heavily marked Powell who was able to get his shot away just as the buzzer sounded for a second time. It dropped through the hoop. 80-79.

It was Incheon’s turn to celebrate now whilst the home fans didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Incheon Elephants celebrate their victory.

The lads sat next to me were just silently shaking their heads in disbelief. It wouldn’t surprise me if that first game of the season also turned out to be their last. As a neutral though, you couldn’t beat it for a finish.

Incheon United v Seongnam, Saturday 6th October 2012, 3pm

October 23, 2012

This weekend was another one of those cut short by a trip to Oman late on the Saturday night and to make matters worse there were no football fixtures scheduled in the National or Challengers Leagues. There were only three games taking place in the top-tier K-League and as two of them were too far away to get back from in time, I was left with Seongnam’s visit to Incheon United.

I took the subway to Dowon and, as I didn’t want to sit in the sun, I bought myself a 12,000 won ticket for the west stand. If I’d been prepared to have the sun in my eyes then I could have got in for 8,000.

Shiny and new.

I wandered around outside for a while and had a look at some of the merchandising stalls. They didn’t seem to be doing much business although a tent at the end of the line where three Incheon players were signing autographs had a queue sixty yards long.

Half of them probably didn’t stay for the match.

There was plenty of room inside the twenty thousand capacity stadium. The official attendance was announced as 3,540 but I’d estimate that there were probably only half that number there at best and maybe even less than a thousand when the game kicked off.

The home fans were behind the goal to my right in the ‘safe-standing’ area. There were almost as many banners and flags as people, but they made a decent effort and sang for most of the game.

Incheon fans.

Seongnam had the open end of the stadium and had brought about fifty fans with them. That is probably more than they have actively supporting their team at their own ground, although I suppose there’s more of a temptation to join in with the singing at away games.

Seongnam fans.

About twenty of the Seongnam supporters were wearing identical tee-shirts. On the back there was a picture of Father Jack with the slogan ‘Feck Off’ underneath and on the front, beneath the badges of FC Seoul and Incheon United were the words ‘I hate these scums’.

Whilst I quite like the idea that Father Jack has a relevance in Korea  fourteen years after Father Ted finished, I find it hard to imagine that either of those teams, FC Seoul in particular, would give a monkey’s about Seongnam or the dodgy tee-shirts worn by their fans.

It seemed such a good idea when they were in the pub.

Football-wise, there wasn’t much to mention in the first half. I’d backed Incheon to win at 13/10 but they didn’t ever look like scoring. Seongnam had a couple of chances on the break but nothing that really caused me any concern.

A random airborne assault.

At half-time I got myself a bag of three hard-boiled eggs to eat. They were the toughest eggs that I’ve ever eaten and I was relieved not to have lost any teeth by the time I’d finished them. I was left wondering if they had bought a large quantity at the start of the season and then six months later been left with a stock surplus when the people of Incheon turned out not to be that interested in football. Next time I’ll just get an ice-cream.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, with Incheon having most of the possession, but Seongnam looking the more dangerous with their counter attacks.

This was actually in the first half.

Everything livened up when, with fifteen minutes to go, Incheon’s Son Dae Ho picked up a second yellow. It seemed a bit harsh to me, although had it been his first card I doubt anyone would have complained. I know that’s not how it should be, but it is. He and his teammates argued with the ref for a while, but in the end he had to go.

Gu Bon Sang argues in support of Son Dae Ho.

Dropping down to ten men seemed to spur Incheon on and within a minute they had hit the post. They then forced a good save from Seongnam goalie Jung San. The visitors had a chance or two themselves but in the end it finished goalless.

They all looked devastated at the end. Perhaps their bets were down too.

The result didn’t really matter apart from to those of us who’d had a wager. The mid-season split of the league had left both clubs in the bottom section but without any real threat of relegation and with nothing to play for. In hindsight, I suppose it may not have been the best circumstances to have had a bet.

Orix Buffaloes v Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Monday 1st October 2012, 6pm

October 23, 2012

There was no football scheduled for the third day of our Chuseok trip to Japan and so Jen and I took the train to Osaka to watch some baseball. With the game not due to start until six o’clock we had a wander around the city centre first. It’s a pleasant enough place with plenty of bars and restaurants, some of which probably seated no more than half a dozen people. Speaking of small stuff, we spotted a fire engine that looked suspiciously undersized. Maybe it’s for getting cats out of bushes rather than trees.

Or maybe they just have giant firemen.

After lunch  we had a look at Osaka Castle. It’s in a park and if you head up to the top there are decent views of the city in each direction. As with a lot of stuff in Japan and Korea, it’s not original though. Over the five hundred years or so that it has existed it has been rebuilt a few times, usually due to siege damage or someone inadvertently setting fire to it whilst aiming for that scorched wood effect on the skirting boards. Its most recent make-over has resulted in the current version being made from concrete.

Osaka Castle.

There’s only so much culture you can take at a time and once we’d had our fill we took the subway to the Kyocera Dome, the indoor stadium where Orix Buffaloes play a lot of their fixtures. They aren’t very good and went into the game bottom of their six team Pacific Division. The visitors, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, have a better record this season and are currently sitting in fourth place.

The ticket prices ranged from 1,700 yen for a seat in the outfield to a top-priced 6,500 yen. As I prefer the outfield, we went for the cheaper option. One of the benefits of sitting in the outfield in Korea is that it is often the quietest part of the ground. The fans who want to sing and bang inflatable sticks together congregate at first and third bases respectively. It doesn’t work like that in Japan though, or at least it didn’t in this game, and as the stadium started to fill up we discovered that the more vocal fans set up camp in the cheap seats.

We were sitting quite close to the Buffaloes supporters. There were a couple of hundred of them and at least four of them had brought their trumpets. They reminded me a little of Spanish football fans who often seem to have a brass section somewhere amongst them.

Orix Brass Band

There were a similar number of Eagles fans to our right. I couldn’t see any trumpets but they made plenty of noise. Surprisingly, to me anyway, the rest of the stadium was very sparsely populated. I know it’s getting on for the end of the season and neither of the teams were in any danger of ending up in the play-offs, but I’d always assumed that Japanese baseball would be played in front of decent sized crowds.

The away fans.

The starting pitcher for Orix was Yuki Nishi. He’s only twenty-one but it’s already three years since he made his Buffaloes debut. I couldn’t find much information on him, but a week after our visit he pitched a ‘no-hitter’ game against Softbank Hawks. He didn’t do as well on this occasion though, conceding two runs early on and seven hits in total before calling it a night after the eighth innings.

Yuki Nishi – Orix Buffaloes

Yasunori Kikuchi opened for the Eagles and he conceded three runs in his lengthy stint, two in the fifth and then the game-clincher in the eighth. I know even less about him than I do Mr. Nishi, but he pulled off a magnificent ‘caught and bowled’ catch. He did it with such apparent nonchalance that it reminded me of an incident from my schooldays. The teacher, who had got a bit pissed off at some kid’s lack of attention, hurled a wooden blackboard rubber at him as hard as he could. A lad who was sitting in front of the intended target just stuck out an arm as the missile passed by him and caught it one-handed without even appearing to look up for his book. He then calmly passed the blackboard rubber back to the teacher with a quietly spoken “Here you are, sir”.

Yasunori Kikuchi – Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

One fella who did stand out, mainly on account of his size and his Korean name, was the designated hitter for the Buffaloes, Lee Dae Ho. It turns out that he is one of Korea’s best ever baseball players, a former Lotte Giants legend and a KBO MVP. He won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and earned a world record in 2010 by scoring home runs in nine successive games. He’s had a good first season in Japan but he did bugger all in this game.

Lee Dae Ho

At the start of the seventh the home fans blew up balloons and then released them. Most of them just hit the roof of the stand and dropped back down whilst a handful reached the playing field. It must be a regular occurence as the cheerleaders were waiting to clear them away.

The home fans and their balloons.

Midway through the seventh we moved around to where the away fans were sat, mainly so that I could get a look at the scoreboard. I’ve no idea what a lot of the stats mean in English, never mind in Japanese, but it looked impressive enough.

Kyocera Dome scoreboard.

As the game moved into the eighth innings we cleared off for the journey back to Kyoto. One of the unusual things that I noticed at the railway station was that they have ‘Women Only’ carriages on the trains. These were originally introduced as a measure to deter male gropers but studies have shown that a lot of the women in those carriages are now put there by their husbands who wish to read the newspaper in peace on the journey home.

‘Women Only’.

All in all, my first trip to a Japanese baseball game was an enjoyable experience. Not as enjoyable as the last time I’d watched a game in a stadium with a roof, but it was never going to come close to the Boro’s Carling Cup win at Cardiff. There were enough differences from the Korean way of doing things to make it interesting and I’d quite like to go back to Japan some time and see a more meaningful game with a bigger crowd.

Sagawa Shiga v Sony Sendai, Sunday 30th September 2012, 1pm

October 17, 2012

There weren’t any J-league games going on anywhere close to Kyoto on the second day of our Chuseok trip. Nor were there any in the second tier J-2 League. The only option that I could find was a third division game between Sagawa Shiga and Sony Sendai in nearby Moriyama. That was good enough for me though.

Jen and I were staying at the Granvia Hotel in Kyoto Station and the concierge fella was an absolute star. All I’d wanted him to do was to write down the name of the stadium in Japanese but within ten minutes he had managed to look up the ground on the internet, print out a map and then tell us exactly how to get there. If I’d asked him nicely he could probably have got me a pair of boots and sorted out a place in Sagawa’s starting line-up.

It didn’t take us long to get there, which I suppose is one of the advantages of staying in a hotel within a railway station. A thirty minute train journey to Katata was followed by a ten minute ride in a taxi that looked like it had come straight out of the nineteen seventies.

Not the bullet train.

If anything we got there too quickly, arriving at the ground an hour and a half early for the 11am kick-off. Or what I’d understood to be an 11am kick-off. I didn’t give too much thought to the stadium being empty when we got there, I’ve seen enough third division games in Korea with virtually nobody inside ten minutes before the kick-off to worry about that.

After a few minutes a fella who had been putting up some advertising banners wandered over and told us that we’d have to leave. Fair enough, I thought, perhaps they need us to buy tickets rather than just stroll in and sit down. I asked him what time we could come back and he told us twelve o’clock. That struck me as an odd time for a game that would have started an hour earlier. Eventually we established that we’d turned up three and a half hours too soon for a game with a 1pm kick-off. I hope he was impressed with our enthusiasm.

What made our early arrival worse though was that a tropical storm was making its way across Japan and we were on the edges of it. The rain was falling steadily and the idea of standing around outside for three and a half hours wasn’t too enticing a prospect.

This hotel was next to the stadium. They have special rates for sixteen people sharing a room.

Fortunately the Sagawa Art Museum was just around the corner and we nipped inside for an hour of looking at the exhibits and a further two hours of drinking five quid coffees in their cafe. Japan is quite expensive. They had an exhibition by Churyo Sato who specialised in bronze sculptures of young women with their tits out.

Churyo Sato

As one o’clock rolled around Jen decided that another hour in the cafe was a better option than braving the wind and rain and I headed off to the game by myself. It was almost too blustery to use an umbrella as I hurried around to the stadium entrance. When I reached the gate a temporary ticket office tent had been set up and I handed over a thousand yen to get in.

The main and only stand.

There were about a hundred fans in total, most of whom were struggling to find a position within the stand where the rain wasn’t blowing in. At the far end of the only stand were the Sagawa ‘ultras’. There were five of them and it’s possible that they were all from the same family. I didn’t see or hear any away fans, perhaps they had decided to stay in the museum too.

Sagawa fans and their drum.

Sagawa Shiga were in blue with the visitors, Sony Sendai in white. It wasn’t really the weather for it, but both teams tried to play football and keep the ball on the ground. The home side went a goal up after five minutes and then doubled their lead after ten.

One of the goals. The first one, I think.

The rest of the half was fairly even and Sony Sendai were unlucky not to pull one back before the interval. They had a couple of ‘goals’ disallowed and missed a few half-chances.

Not the best day for a football game.

At half time I’d seen all that I needed to and made my way back to the museum as there’s a limit to how many five quid coffees you can expect someone else to drink by themselves. As I walked around the edge of the pitch the worsening conditions had meant that the ticketing tent had already been dismantled and the advertising hoardings were being removed before they blew away. Even the flags were being lowered.

The main stand with the Christmas hotel next to it.

I checked later to see whether or not the game had been abandoned and it had made it to full-time. Each side had managed a second –half goal with Sagawa Shiga running out three-one winners.

Gamba Osaka v Kashima Antlers, Saturday 29th September 2012, 4pm

October 11, 2012

It’s Chuseok again in Korea. The time of year when dutiful Koreans return to their hometown to pay their respects to their ancestors and not so dutiful non-Koreans head off on holiday somewhere.

This year Jen and I went to Japan, staying in Kyoto for four nights and taking the opportunity to look around the Kansai region. As ever I made a point of seeing what sporting events were going on and as luck would have it Gamba Osaka were at home to Kashima Antlers in the J-League on our first day there.

We caught a morning Eastarjet flight from Incheon to Osaka Kansai and were in Japan by eleven o’clock. It took a while to get through immigration and then collect our Kansai Rail passes so we decided to get some lunch at the airport from a cafe called Beef Bowl. It served, as you might expect, bowls with beef in. The best bit though was that you made your choice at a vending machine by pressing the button with the appropriate photograph, inserting your money and then handing your printed ticket to the man behind the counter. As someone who speaks no Japanese it could only have been bettered if the beef bowl had been dispensed from the machine rather than a ticket.

After lunch we took the train to Shin Osaka station, dumped our bags in the left luggage and then took an hour-long journey by subway and monorail to Gamba Osaka’s Expo ’70 Commemorative Stadium. I’d tell you the names of the subway stops but I’ve forgotten them. The lady in the Tourist Information at Shin Osaka knows though, so you can ask her.

Expo ’70 Commemorative Stadium, Osaka.

It was fairly busy outside the stadium with cheerleaders putting on a bit of a show and with plenty of people milling around the stalls selling food and merchandise. Jen and I made our way to a bar where I got some unspecified meat on a stick and a Suntory beer.

The queue to get in at the Curva Nord.

We would probably have spent a little longer at the bar but it was starting to rain and as neither of us had brought a coat we thought it better to get some tickets and make our way inside. The tickets started at 2,500 yen and went up to 5,500. We got two top-priced ones in the main stand (described as box seats) on the basis that they might have a better chance of being under cover. No chance. The small canopy covered only a small selection of local bigwigs and sponsors, everyone else in that stand and the rest of the ground found themselves exposed to the elements.

The fans in the opposite stand had all brought their coats.

Despite the weather the twenty-one thousand capacity ground was about two-thirds full. The home ‘ultras’ had the North stand to our left with the visitors taking up a decent chunk of the opposite end. Both of those sections were standing areas, the new modern kind with barriers between each row. It lent itself to a great atmosphere with both sets of fans making a racket throughout the game.

The home end.

The singing was all quite well organised with one bloke and his megaphone leading the chants. He’d generally have to just give them one line and with a couple of couple of drummers chipping in, the whole end would take it up.

“C’mon Gamba”

It was a similar situation at the Kashima end, although with fewer fans. It’s over three hundred miles from Osaka to Kashima so it was still a decent turnout. Although I suppose the bullet train might just cut the journey time a bit from what you’d expect.

The away fans.

Both sides have been struggling this season and with only a handful of games to go Gamba are in the relegation area and Kashima just outside of it, five points ahead of their hosts. A win for Kashima would probably be enough to ensure that Gamba wouldn’t be able to catch them.

After a cagey opening ten minutes the visitors took the lead through Renato Caja, much to the delight of their fans.

Tits out for the lads.

It wasn’t to last though and midway through the half Brazilian Leandro equalised for Gamba Osaka. It probably spared him from a half-time bollocking as he’d missed an absolute sitter a minute or so before.

Osaka celebrate their equaliser and a new baby for someone.

Parity didn’t last long though as Junior Dutra became the third Brazillian to score, putting Kashima back in front just before the break. There was another Brazilian on the visiting bench, Juninho. Not the real one or even the fake one who used to play for Lyon. A fake, fake one I suppose. I checked him out on Soccerway and he’s about five foot ten. That’s odd, I’d always thought that Juninho was Portuguese for ‘Shortarse’ or something. It seems an odd choice of nickname, especially in a country like Japan where he’ll be taller than most of his teammates.

At half time we took refuge from the rain and I got myself another Suntory. As in Korea, ramyeon seemed pretty popular as a snack, along with the meat on a stick that I’d eaten earlier.

Half-time snack.

The rain eased off in the second half, but with a wet pitch both teams pinged the ball about and created plenty of chances. Gamba were attacking the home end and went close on a few occasions.

Endo curls in a cross.

We headed out with five minutes to go as we had stuff to do and were keen to beat the rest of the crowd to the subway. Unfortunately that meant we missed Leandro’s injury time equaliser, his ninth goal in five games. Forty minutes later we were back at Shin Osaka station and then onwards to Kyoto.

Doosan Bears v Hanwha Eagles, Monday 24th September 2012, 6.30pm

October 10, 2012

Baseball on a Monday? Really? Yes, really. The regular season is just about done and the teams are taking any opportunity to play the re-scheduled games that had been cancelled earlier in the year. I could see why Doosan would be keen to give up their day off as they are battling Lotte for the third place spot although I imagine that bottom placed Hanwha would have been less enthusiastic. It’s a long season and when you lose far more than you win then those Monday nights sat at home watching the telly are probably the best of the week.

Kim Seung Hee opened the pitching for Doosan. He did ok, lasting until the eighth innings and conceding just the one run.

Kim Seung Hee – Doosan Bears

Denny Bautista was the starting pitcher for Hanwha. I’d seen him pitch before, but as a closer. It surprised me at that time to see a foreign import being used so sparingly and thought it made a lot more sense for him to have a crack at the opposition right from the start. Bautista did ok as well, giving up two runs in the second innings but then surviving until the end of the seventh without conceding any more.

Denny Bautista – Hanwha Eagles

As far as the interesting stuff off the field goes then the highlight was probably the mid-game drinking beer competition featuring a girl fan from each team. The first one to drink a can of Cass through a straw got the glory and probably the hiccups.

Miss Doosan won.

The other point of note is that Jen and I aren’t the only people who turn up regardless of which teams are playing. There were a couple of fellas to our right who had been at the LG Twins v Nexen game the previous week. They seemed just as fervent in their support of Hanwha as they had been for the Heroes last time out.

They probably think I’m stalking them.

The introduction of the relief pitchers didn’t change the score and by nine o’clock it was all over, Doosan holding on for their 2-1 victory.

Incheon v Wonderful Samcheok, Sunday 23rd September 2012, 4pm

October 10, 2012

I’d just finished watching a men’s handball match at the Fencing Gymnasium in Seoul’s Olympic Park and as the air-conditioning was making it a pleasurable place to be, I didn’t hurry out afterwards. Strangely enough, neither did anyone else. After a few minutes I concluded that the game we had just watched wasn’t the full extent of the afternoon’s entertainment and so I stuck around to see what would happen next.

What we got was a women’s handball game and just like the men’s match it was the second leg of the Championship play-off and the culmination of a season that had started back in February.  As with the men’s game, I had no idea of the score from the first leg and so not only was I watching a game where I didn’t have any real knowledge of the rules, I was completely ignorant as to which team were winning.

What I did know was that the team playing in red were Samcheok as they had their team name on their shirts. Not just Samcheok though, but Wonderful Samcheok. Hmm. I’ve been to Samcheok a couple of times and whilst it’s a decent enough place I’d say Wonderful is pushing it a bit. The team in blue were Incheon, just Incheon I think, rather than bigging themselves with a name like, say, Quite Close to Seoul Incheon.


Wonderful Samcheok lead for most of the game, although as I said, I’d no idea which team was ahead on aggregate. The play was just as aggressive as that of the men’s game that I’d just watched and both teams were well supported.

It was a similar atmosphere to the basketball games.

As the game drew to a close Incheon narrowed the gap and with a big contribution from the best player on the court, eleven goal striker Ryu Eun Hui, they forced a draw. I can’t remember now but I think it was twenty something all.

Ryu Eun Hui – Star of the show.

The main interest for me at this point was seeing which team had actually won. You’d think that it would have been evident from the play with perhaps one team chasing the game and the other time-wasting. It wasn’t though and I had to wait for the celebrations at the final whistle to discover that Incheon were the champions. They tossed their coach in the air, as seems compulsory at sporting events over here, and collected the trophy.

As traditional as playing ‘We Are The Champions’.

So, after forty-seven years without seeing a single handball game I’d now seen two in an afternoon. It’s not something that I’d probably hurry back to, although with the new season not starting until February it’s something I don’t have to give any thought to for a while yet.

Choongnam v Doosan, Sunday 23rd September 2012, 2pm

October 9, 2012

I’d been to watch the tennis at the Olympic Park and as I was heading back to the subway station afterwards I noticed a few television trucks outside of the Fencing Gymnasium. There was a sign outside mentioning handball and as one of the doors to the venue was open I went inside to see if there was anything going on. I could hear noises from behind a curtain and a closer look revealed that there was indeed a handball game taking place.

Behind the curtain.

To be truthful handball isn’t a game that I’ve ever given very much thought to. I occasionally stumble across a match as I’m flicking through the tv channels, but I rarely watch for longer than the time necessary to establish that it’s, well, handball.

I’m usually quite happy to watch most sport, but handball just seems like an unnecessary version of football, albeit not so good. Sports like rugby or basketball are different enough from football to make them interesting, handball though is really just a rip-off of a game of five-a-side with your mates. The only difference seems to be that you use your hands rather than your feet.

I’ve read that it’s popular in Scandinavia, but then again, so are fermented shark burgers. It still doesn’t make it right. Curiosity trumped reticence though and I joined around five hundred other spectators. A team in red that I later discovered to be Choongnam were playing a team in blue that turned out to be a side owned by Doosan. The game was ten minutes into the second half and Choongnam were ahead by a few.

Choongnam on the attack.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with any of the rules other than you aren’t allowed to kick the ball, I’ll pass on what I spotted. If you imagine five-a-side football, but with seven players on each team that’s it. So, seven-a-side football. I couldn’t work out whether outfield players were allowed in the box or not and I’m not sure the ref knew either. Maybe the players just decide between themselves before the start, but don’t really pay much attention to it. Whatever. They’ve borrowed two minutes suspensions from ice-hockey but that’s about the only difference that I noticed.

It’s quite an aggressive game, or at least this one was, with players regularly getting clattered. I kept an eye on the keepers as apparently it was during Peter Schmeichel’s time as a handball goalie that he developed his famous ‘star-jump’ shot stopping technique. Both keepers spread themselves in a similar way whenever the ball was hurled towards goal but, unlike Schmeichel, rarely seemed to know where the ball was going until it either hit the back of the net or smacked them in the chops.

Interestingly, Schmeichel’s other trademark activity of bollocking the defence whenever he made a mistake didn’t seem to be something that he’d picked up from his handball days.

A Doosan player tries the ball concealment tactic known as ‘Drug-smuggling’.

Choongnam kept their lead until the end, running out 28-22 victors. Oddly though it was Doosan who celebrated, receiving a trophy, throwing their coach in the air and lining up behind a banner where one fella mixed up his V for Victory gesture with something else altogether.

Harvey Smith celebrates another win.

The mystery was solved when I discovered that this match was the second leg of the Championship play-off and so I assume that Doosan must have gone into the game with at least a seven goal advantage from the previous encounter.  I’ve no idea whether it was close or not. Doosan could have just nicked a thrilling aggregate victory or they could have strolled through a match made meaningless by the first leg. The air-conditioning was good though and that’s what mattered most.