I have a confession to make. Please try not to be too shocked! My local football team when I was growing up was Dulwich Hamlet. One of the coaches lived down my street but, instead of watching the pink-shirted part-timers , I ended up watching the professionals at Arsenal and Millwall. Other than the odd goalkeeper, I'd never seen a self-respecting pro' wearing pink at home! Maybe I should rephrase that, but I won't!
Anyway, it was high time I saw past the pink prejudice and took a look at Cerezo Osaka, named in honour of Japan's famous cherry trees. I've been known to wear the odd pink shirt, but could I find a macho-ish cotton shirt at Nagai Stadium? The answer to that was 'no', as Cerezo weren't playing at Nagai. Instead of that 14,000 crammed into the smaller ground next door, Kincho Stadium, to watch a game against Yokohama F. Marinos that they needed to win to ease their relegation fears.
I hoped the action would be a bit better than the Cerezo merchandising, which was a tad disappointing to be honest, as I was hoping to get a blue and pink shirt, as opposed to a pink and blue one. To some people, there's not much difference, but I just couldn't face walking around in mostly pink, especially with some cutesy/girly manga-style design. I mean, I might as well buy a white handbag and dance around it, if I'm going to go that far. Well, that's what I thought and, as I'm in confessional mode, I thought I might as well let you know!
Not that I was worried about getting picked up or anything! Alan Gibson, president of JSoccer Magazine, had made sure no one would want to get within 2 miles of me after some pre-match gyoza. After eating that, I'm sure I smelt a lot stronger than Patrick Vieira did when he was accused of having 'garlic breath' by West Ham's Neil Ruddock back 1999. And although I didn't even knowingly spit it anyone, I can assure you no one would have got within spitting distance of me without a face mask of some sort. Not that the latter items are in short supply in Japan.
Anyway, my garlic aura was bound to ensure that fanged insects would keep their distance, surely. After a couple of mosquito bites at Kyoto Sanga, earlier in the week, I was hoping there wouldn't be a repeat performance. 'Don't worry, wally,' Alan informed me. 'There aren't any insects at Cerezo's ground. They're sponsored by an insecticide company.'
Well, that was news to me, so I paced on ahead of him, anxious to get to the impressive arena looming ever larger in front of me. Suddenly, I heard Alan's voice behind me: 'Where are you going, wally?'
'To the stadium.'
'That's the wrong stadium, wally. Turn left and you might find it.'
I did, and saw the much smaller venue, Kincho Stadium, much to my disappointment. I also wondered if I should rename myself 'Walter', seeing as Alan was continuing to call me 'wally'. If I was 'Walter', I could 'capitalise' on his mild abuse.
Luckily, the Cerezo staff didn't call me 'wally. They were just as friendly as you will find at any other stadium in Japan.
I went back outside to hit one of the merchandising stands outside the ground. 'Have you got any blue cotton shirts,' I asked.
'Sorry. Cerezo play in pink, so we only have pink shirts.'
'What about their away kit?'
'I'm sorry, it's only available in nylon.'
Yep, I was disappointed again. Yet Alan was right about the lack of insects. On entering the stadium, I looked up expecting to see cicadas and other flying insects congregating in front of the floodlight, but the sky was completely clear. It was so clear that I could see a garishly-lit love hotel called 'Manhattan' almost overlooking the ground. 'Wow! That must be fun,' I thought innocently.
Rather than contemplate what goes on in a place like that, I focused on matters on the pitch. The Cerezo team came out, with the mascots, one of whom looked like a cauliflower. Maybe the other one was a sprig of garlic, I couldn't tell. But I couldn't help but notice how blue Cerezo's shirts were. 'So much for pink', I thought. 'Rarer than "sticky-safe hands" Lucasz Fabianski-branded goalkeeping gloves,' I added privately. 'I could "stomach" that shirt! By "stomach" I mean insert my belly inside a tight-fitting semi-macho football top, if necessary. As long as it wasn't pink and it wasn't nylon.
Before I could wander back down to the mechandising area, the game had kicked off. Both sets of fans were in full voice. I thought the Yokohama crowd took a while to get going, but once they started they didn't stop. Never mind the scoreline, J.League fans want to sing and wave flags, so that's what they do. Once again, this was another incredible advertisement for football in Japan.
The action was hotting up on the pitch as well. Cerezo's two Brazilians in the starting XI, Simplicio and Kempes looked in fine fettle, with the former supplying the pass for Kakitani to shoot wide early on.
At the other end, Cerezo's South Korean international keeper, Jin-Hyeon Kim, was also on his toes, keeping Yokohama at bay. He was beaten once, when Oguro scored from a Nakamura corner, but it was ruled out for offside. The relieved Cerezo fans immediately rejoiced by singing a song that sounded like 'Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny)'. To me, the lyrics should have been: 'Jin-Hyeon, You're the reason we're not conceding'. Or something like that!
What a selection of songs this crowd had. It was like logging into Spotify being here! Next up was 'It's A Heartache', made famous by Bonnie Tyler. Then it was a trip to Disneyland, or 'desu ne' land if you prefer in this land of the rising question tags, as the crowd launched into a song that sounded like 'Colonel Hathi's March' from 'The Jungle Book'. 'In a military style', it seemed to go. I thought that was quite ironic, given Japan's lack of armed forces.
However, the regimented nature of the supporting made it seem quite apt. And whatever the fans were singing, it all added to the atmosphere which was as electric as anywhere else in the J.League.
But Yokohama were making a fist of this game, with Oguro and Ono beginning to impress. Then a strike out of nowhere. Yamaguchi's shot seemed to fly past Yokohama keeper Iikura faster than the speed of light. The crowd sang 'Na na na, Heathrow'. Or did it imagine it? I certainly didn't imagine what Alan said. 'Why couldn't he do that in the Olympics?'
Yokohama were there for the taking now, as they slowly began to fall apart. Indiscipline was showing and internal dissent. Both of those seem so rare in the J.League, so I was shocked to notice Ono berating Hyodo, after the latter's poorly-placed crossfield pass.
Right after that, another stray Yokohama pass was pounced upon by Katikani, who seized the night as opposed to the day and wrapped up victory for Cerezo. 'More goals please' said the scoreboard, but Cerezo had to settle for two.
Still, it was another great night of J.League action and well worth riding ten stops from Umeda for. Had Jim-Hyeon made ten stops too that night? I don't think so, but he's one of the reasons that Cerezo fans can start believing that they are destined to stay up. They might even get more than they bargained for, like a 'Slumdog Millionaire'.