I am a lucky person. In the traditional sense, I have a job I love, a wife I adore and a hobby that keeps me going. With football being that hobby. I live, breathe and eat it. Playing and watching.
I am also lucky in the literal sense as well. You know those charity raffles that boast about top cash prizes that no one ever wins? But you buy a ticket to support a cause and feel good about yourself. Well, I won, two of them in very quick succession. Whilst it wasn’t a life-changing amount long term. It was to my aforementioned wife as it meant I could treat us to her dream holiday. Two weeks in Japan. Not only that but I was even accommodating enough to go smack bang in the middle of WSL season. Major spouse points right there. Though considering West Ham’s results whilst I have been away. She might have done me a favour.
However, there was a caveat to such generosity in that I wanted to watch a live match whilst over here. The W.E league had just started back up and I wanted a piece of the action. Turns out it was something Kate was interested in too. Huzzah, now to find the right match.
The W.E. League or the Women’s Empowerment League to give its full title, is the first fully professional league in Japan. Relatively new it started in 2021 to help rebuild Japan as the force within women’s football it once was. It is already working as we saw in the World Cup and it’s starting to become an attractive league for other nations to send their players.
They are also trying to produce better facilities for grassroots players to work their way up. All in all the set-up and vision is something to be admired.
It appears also they have gone the European way of founding the league with each team having a big brother men’s team that play in the male equivalent league. This allows in theory for a more stable financial base for this new structure to grow.
We had three within a reasonable distance of our Tokyo apartment and to be honest, it was a coin flip which one I chose. Ironically the three Tokyo teams were all away on the date we could make. So we had to look further afield.
We settled on Omiya Ardija vs Cerezo Osaka as our game of choice for many reasons. Only an hour and a half to get there and a straight shot on the Japanese metro. Win! But most importantly it was the only match held in a proper stadium. The other two were a pitch, with a running track and a stand and a half. Think of Bristol City’s old ground near Parkway before they moved. So I wanted to provide my wife with the ultimate luxury of an actual seat. We were off to the Nack 5 stadium Omiya, the first purpose-built stadium for football in all of Japan.
My first hint that we had made the correct decision was the massive orange and navy ( the team colours) poster over the exit of the station. Showcasing both of the Omiya captains telling us to come this way to the ground. As you leave every lamppost sported a different player with their name number proudly hoisted above. Clearly a footballing town. Who needs a map to the stadium when you can follow the orange flag road?
So many shops had official supporter flags with the two mascots, squirrels named Ardy and Miya in case you were wondering. Including the wedding dress shop which gave us this amazing display.
To age myself entirely it reminded me of walking down Green Street back when Upton Park was in its prime. Every shop was coloured claret and blue and had pictures of West Ham heroes gone by. It’s exactly the same except it’s orange and navy. And the team is new so fewer of the heroes have gone by and more players you can actually go see play
The journey itself is the most beautiful walk to a stadium I have been on. I mean Dagenham has its charm but the Eastbrook pub does not have the same gravitas as a 1000-year-old shrine. Borehamwood and Kingston this was not. They have even repurposed one of the Shrine buildings for fans to ask for blessings on the team.
We got premium seats on the halfway line for a humongous 5000 yen for two tickets (current conversation rate is £26.00 GBP). And it’s from the ticket office onwards I fell in love with this little team that could. Their whole set-up is fan-focused in the best possible way.
Firstly the greeters who make sure that you get going regardless of the language barrier. Through translation apps, broken English ( him) even more broken Japanese (me) and the ancient art of mime. I knew where the toilets were and where I could buy snacks, drinks and merchandise. Winner.
Secondly the freebies. I love a freebie and normally in the WSL you get a sticker, player card or if you are super lucky a clapper that allows you to make as much noise as folded pieces of card can make.
Today I received a laminated team sheet, a zip lock bag because why not ( ziplock sponsor the team. So not as random as first thought) and a free shirt. Yes, you heard me a free shirt. Now it was not an official kit jersey but was WAY COOLER.
The free shirt was a bright orange camo affair styled like a baseball jersey ( the National sport of Japan fun fact) with both team’s logos and sponsors on the back. I swear I am not selling it well but it is wicked cool. Better than the fruit of the loom kids shirts Man City used catapult at you as half-time ‘entertainment’. As my wife said it made us want to throw money at this team and we did.
Finally, it’s the set-up of the stadium. The stadium has a version of safe standing which the Premier League is still considering implementing. Behind each goal, you have two tiers with seats at the stop and terraces at the bottom. This is where the ultra Omiya fans sit. With their drums and flags and chanting. They are both electrifying and terrifying at the same time. A sea of orange and navy getting ready for war. Kate compares it to when she went to watch Portland over in the NWSL. She raves about Portland’s support A LOT. So this was high praise indeed.
Plus they trust us to have alcohol at our seats. Was nice to have a pint at half time and not have to chug it like a frat boy on a dare.
Let’s talk fans shall we as these guys and gals and inbetweenies were amazing. The attendance was healthy but not a sell out but you would not know it. They had drummers (which I normally loathe, so high praise that I enjoyed it). They had chants (which had familiar tunes but unfamiliar words). They did not stop all game, spurring their team on, for the full 90 and then some. This truly is a footballing town in a nation of baseball lovers. It was glorious.
The club acknowledges this by having no number 12. Instead, the number is dedicated to the fans. Officially the 12th player.
You can tell the players feed off the support as in the second half when it was time to try and score in the goal they were behind. The team have more verve and vigour than they had in the first. Though as Kate pointed out they seemed to have discovered what a winger was second half also.
The game itself was not the most remarkable or memorable. After a while, I turned to Kate and said ‘ I feel like I have picked the West Ham of Japan to follow. A few missed kicks and scuffed shots. Head in hands she agreed it felt like we were at home. However, I was picking players I wanted to poach. Number 5 and 33 my eyes are on you.
Dear reader, it did feel like home in more ways than one. When Omiya scored a late winner. The crowd roared and we jumped up like had been supporting them for years. The couple in front turned and fist-bumped and hugged us like old friends. The joy on their faces was infectious.
After the thrilling result we all trudged back to the station, wearily exuberant following the orange and navy brick road.
Here we have it as the title says. I went to Omiya as a neutral hoping to experience women’s football in another setting. Soothe the itch, heal the pang of what I have been missing. But I came away a fan and that was very much down to the team and the larger team around them.
I will keep an eye on their progress and watch their matches ( you can too as the league is streamed on DAZN). Maybe not live though as my new love does not stretch to 2 am starts.
To Omiya, I salute you. Go ORANGE!!