Football: Easy to be green in Matsumoto

Fans gathering outside Matsumoto Yamaga's Alwin Stadium four hours before the home side kicked off their J2 tie. Yamaga want to return to Japanese football's heady heights, and are keen to knit the community together along the way.
Fans gathering outside Matsumoto Yamaga's Alwin Stadium four hours before the home side kicked off their J2 tie. Yamaga want to return to Japanese football's heady heights, and are keen to knit the community together along the way.ST PHOTO: ANDY NG

In a small and quaint city like Matsumoto, away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Osaka, it is the passion for football that brings the town to life.

On matchday yesterday, Matsumoto, with a population of 240,000, was overwhelmingly green - the representative colour of local club Matsumoto Yamaga.

Outside their 20,000-seater Alwin Stadium, green club banners lined the roads. Fans were decked in Yamaga green four hours before kick-off despite the drizzle. Even the food trucks were selling green-coloured beer.

Yamaga may be playing in J2, the second division of Japanese football, but the fans showed that their passion and support is second to none.

Close to 12,000 fans turned up for the match (the J-League's average gate receipts are 17,803) with nearly 200 volunteers arriving five hours earlier to help at the stadium - putting up banners, cleaning seats and lining rubbish bins.

On the pitch, Yamaga hosted Montedio Yamagata, hoping for a win that would boost their aim of an immediate return to the J-League's Division One (J1), after dropping to J2 this season.

They beat the visitors 1-0, with Ryutaro Lio sealing the victory with one minute left in the match. Yamaga are now third in J2.

Despite being a club in the second tier, Yamaga manager Yasuharu Sorimachi spoke on Friday about the club's ambitions.

He said: "Of course, Yamaga's aim is to be promoted to J1 and hopefully stay there.

"But one other important goal is that we want to contribute to our local community - we want to make the Matsumoto people excited about football."

Yamaga are doing more than just connecting with locals. They have international ties with the Football Association of Singapore, having hosted six national Under-15 and U-14 players last week for a training attachment.

Sorimachi added that such exchange programmes for young footballers are worth investing in because there is an increasing number of youth academies in Japan and South-east Asia.

As such, it is beneficial that young footballers from various countries have a chance to learn from one another when it comes to the different training methods and style of play. It is also a good cultural exchange for them.

"At Yamaga, all my players must be on the pitch five minutes before the start of training. And once they are on it, everything in their minds must be football. I demand 100 per cent from them," Sorimachi added.

"Also, they must be confident and be up to the challenge of tough training sessions. Training every day is important because players need to be very comfortable with the ball at their feet."

Perhaps that is the reason why Yamaga's first team train on one of the two pitches at their training ground at Karigane on a daily basis - except for match days - and sometimes up to two sessions a day.

Devoid of star players or a big budget but bursting with pride and passion, the locals believe the club in green can fly high one day.

Hiroshi Endo, 35, said: "I'm born in Matsumoto and Matsumoto Yamaga will always be my club. It doesn't matter even though we're in J2, I will support Yamaga nonetheless.

"Who knows, one day, we can become like (the English Premier League's) Leicester City?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Easy to be green in Matsumoto'. Print Edition | Subscribe