The Return of the Boy from Brazil

Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba, Japan, June 2013

We had come all this way, but there was no Boy from Brazil.

Valley Parade, Bradford, England, November 2012

Chesterfield are a stern footballing side and Bradford City are struggling to break them down. I’ve moved seats for the night parking myself next to Nick – young Nick if you will – who apologises for the frequent, violent bursts of swearing from one of his seat neighbours. “He is always like that,” my host says wearily and I nod full in the knowledge that were positions reversed I would end up saying the same thing about the people who sit around me.

“We fucking need to be fucking winning fucking games like this if we are not going to be shite.” The linguistics are laughable, the sentiment anything but supportive.

Wembley Stadium, London, England, February 2013

I will confess, dear reader, that there had been a time that I was partial to things Danish and in those few weeks of 1986 when the red shirted Scandinavians were enthralling in the late night glow of the World Cup in Mexico that Michael Laudrup was everything a footballer should be. The second round 5-1 exit to Spain derailing what seemed to be the birth of a new footballing power from the tiny Northern European democracy.

That defeat seemed to be born of a Danish belief that they were the anointed team that a thirteen year old in Bradford thought they were and was an object lesson in the beautiful game and how it rewards completeness. Six years later when the Danes won Euro 92 their most notable player was John Jensen, a holding midfielder.

That lesson that all games had to be won seemed to have settled in the mind of Laudrup. His Swansea City team were adorable on the ball and worked peerlessly hard off it. The victory over Bradford City – a handsome 5-0 – was made easy to take by virtue of the elan of the opposition.

Laudrup gathered his players into an honour guard to greet Gary Jones’ and his side on the way down the Wembley stairs. At least half the City fans had left Wembley when Ashley Williams lifted the Capital One Cup, deserved champions that they were. They will regret that.

Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba, Japan, June 2013

To suggest there is a manufacturer air to football in Japan is to mistake the construction of palaces for the tilling of gardens.

Arrive at Soga station, some forty minutes from central Tokyo, on the evening of a match is to better understand the idea of the sea of support. The yellow floor rises to the station which boasts a burger bar on one side of the corridor and profiles of the players along the other. Indeed the staff of the station have broken with the cliche of reserve and are wearing football shirts belonging to the home side. Make no mistake traveller, you are in JEF United country.

JEF United, founder of the J-League but now in its recently established second tier having failed to win promotion through the play-offs last season, are woven into the fabric of this part of Toyko’s industrial lands. They play in the Fukuda Denshi Arena, an 18,000 capacity venue a strong stone’s throw from a collection of oppressive looking oil refineries, and even at 75% full it is an impressive stadium. No running track, and the close to the action, the support is fervent without aggression.

The politeness which oils Japan’s societal wheels is evident. The Referee leads the players in a thirty second silent meditation before the match, the players bow to all four sides of the arena before kick off.

It is a derby of sorts. JEF United take on Toyko Verdy and both are chasing play off places. I know this because I have been following JEF United for a month now. The J-League is on hiatus while Japan play in the Confederations Cup and this game offered the closest available match on our tour of the Far East nation. JEF United have been in good form since they gathered my interest. They have won three on the bounce and can move up to fifth with a win against a Verdy side who would overtake them in victory.

In any language, this is a tasty encounter.

The J-League restricts the number of non-Japanese players, part of a plan that the JFA and its clubs follow that aims to create a game in touch with the communities they are based in (the full name of the club is JEF United Ichihara Chiba) and guarantees that the clubs are financially sustainable. The league has come a long way and a burst bubble since the days of Gary Lineker and Hidetoshi Nakata which marked its formation. Those were early years in what is a 100 year plan.

Following JEF United from afar is an abstracted version of football. JEF United’s top scorer – and thus one assumes their finest asset – is physically big striker called Kempes. Each team can have two designated non-Japanese players, and a single non-Japanese Asian player who is most likely a Korean. Like most of the non-Japanese players Kempes is Brazilian.

Taking up seats before kick off the stadium is an array of waving flags. All JEF United fans are given yellow hand flags on the way in and behind the goal the mass of yellow supporters fans are housed behind giant standards to be waved on queue. The singing is led by a megaphoned leader, and is as passionate as any I have seen.

On the other side of the stadium are Toyko Verdy. They have flags, they have songs, they have a singer with a megaphone. Having mingled with Toyko’s supporters on the way to the game I can also attest to the fact that they have nothing to fear. I’m told that fights have been seen at Japanese grounds but they are uncommon, and no one attempts intimidation. There are songs I understand: “Chiba, Chiba, Chiba”; and ones I do not but there is no aggression in the voices.

The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I catch my breath as the first ball is kicked. I listen for the voices of those around me. There is passion, but not aggression. No fists are shaken and when hands are raised the palm is open. It is football with a partisan edge but without an aggressive one and for the first time in weeks, in months, in over a year, I feel like I am home.

Looking at the line up though – and unable to understand the discussion as to why – there is no Kempes in the JEF United side tonight. We had come all this way, but there was no Boy from Brazil.

Back at Valley Parade, Bradford, England, November 2012

Chesterfield frustrate, causing the aggression, and ultimately take a point away from a City team which already look tired in a campaign that will include an historic run the League Cup, a good stint in two other competitions and victory in the play offs.

In six months time the league table will show Bradford City in the final play off place with 69 points, Chesterfield a place below with 67. A reversal in this game would have switched though positions.

If there is a reality to supporting football it may be on nights like this. The final reckoning will make this the keystone game in the season but how many would walk away from Valley Parade having enjoyed the match. If voices are raw and sore the morning after it is from those who shouted abuse, not support, through the game which would end up being decisive.

The reality of supporting football clubs is that these steps are the significant ones and, it seems, as much as the destination of Wembley (twice) and a victory parade in an empty fountain in the middle of Bradford was celebrated that was an antipathy on the journey.

The Pirelli Stadium, Burton, England, May 2013

One am, Friday night or Saturday morning. Queue for tickets in the bowl of the stands at Valley Parade. A line is drawn at about seven and no one who comes at what might be called a reasonable hour will get tickets. The queue is somber.

Having lost 3-2 in the first leg, and not playing especially well at Burton it seemed that Phil Parkinson’s team’s run was in danger of ending. Burton’s backline was repelling James Hanson’s strength and pushed Nahki Wells wide nullifying him. Burton Albion manager Gary Rowett had paid City the respect of doing his homework, and in doing so had found a way of snuffing out the threat that City poised.

And then there was a poor back pass that was too close to Wells, who has a turn of pace to surprise even those who feel ready for it, and then everything was as it was supposed that it should be.

Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton, England, May 1999

After Robbie Keane scored for Wolves on the day that would end up with City winning 3-2 and getting promoted to the Premiership it seemed that the entire support had concluded that this was a bridge too far for the Bantams. That this noble effort would end in failure.

There was a core of strength in the players though, a belief which transcended the terraces and it was that which turned the game around.

Wembley Stadium, London, England, May 2013

It is easy, and rather lazy, to say that Bradford City put in three goals while Northampton were still taking photographs and waving at their families in the League Two Play Off final. Put that City team up against a side that had been the the National Stadium ten times and the result would have been the same. It was a belief, a belief in each other’s abilities and in the unit as a whole which was the DNA of Phil Parkinson’s side and the reason why the Bantams were victorious.

A long time ago Parkinson told a story about how he once let a player – a player some would have called the best at the club he was at – leave because he did not fit into the mentality that the manager was looking to build.

Toyama Athletic Recreation Park Stadium, Toyama, Japan, July 2013

And there he was: Kempes; The boy from Brazil.

Toyama is 263 miles from Chiba but we’ve come from Hiroshima via Kyoto because one of the things about wandering around a country with a backpack is that you need to find a destination. Hiroshima is about the distance from Bradford to Portsmouth four times over away. The Shinkansen is a thing of beauty.

We pull into Kataller Toyama. Its a big town or a small city. No skyscrapers but the odd tall building. Its hot but everywhere is hot in Japan in July and I’ve given up worrying about it. I have no idea what we are going to find but looking down the main street at the shops boasting with pride the local dish it is, evidently, Chickentown.

JEF United, away. There were ten thousand or more at the home match but around two hundred at this athletics stadium. Cups of barbecued chicken are available for very few yen under the stands. Going up to the away section you can see the kind of stunning mountain view that takes breath away in the midst of an oncoming shower. The chicken tastes good sitting on the grassy bank behind the goal before the rain and we attract a few glances. Being six foot two in a claret and amber shirt will do that. This is Japan and reticence and politeness are a culture. No one interferes.

The game is played out in an welcome shower of warm rain that cools the blood. A song comes up – the man with the megaphone is there again – and the songs are about Kempes. He will finish the J-League 2 season as top scorer but he is off the pace today and unimpressive. His first touch is woeful and he strolls through the game. To counter this the group of around sixty singers wave banners, sing songs and get behind their team, and the Brazilian.

They are rewarded and so am I. Yusuke Tanaka – number six – darts out of midfield and is found by a diagonal ball into the middle. He checks over both shoulders and he runs and completes and side footed lob from an angle over the home keeper who did not realise he was stranded until he saw the ball nestling behind him in the goal.

I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of better goals I have seen with my own eyes. It is beautiful. The acceleration from midfield, the precision of the finish, the ambition, the craft, the subtle magnificence.

The game ends 2-1 with and by the time it does I’ve joined the JEF support bouncing, singing songs in a language I do not understand, being welcomed having transitioned from interested outsider to lifetime supporter. #winbyall we like to say.

There was a bus back to Toyama – the stadium about forty minutes walk away – and not many people talked on the way back because even after the ebullience of football this is still Japan and there is a reserve to these things. I pick up words pulled out of few conversations like the old Fast Show sketch.

“Something something something Kempes.”

Kempes was withdrawn after about seventy minutes and unimpressive on the night. JEF United would finish the season fifth on to draw in the play-offs (lower team plays higher and has to win to progress). They will spend another year in J-League 2, a fifth out of the top division they were founder members of in 1994.

“Something Kempes something something something something.”

Valley Parade, Bradford, England, January 2014

James Hanson scores in the first minutes and Nahki Wells has gone to Huddersfield to be replaced in the first team by the son of one of my friends. Seventeen and eager his name is sung in support not just of the player but of the spirit which had emerged in the supporters of the club.

Something bigger than one player or than one person, bigger than bad results and bad performances. Something that speaks of an opposition to apathy and cowardice dressed as pessimism.

Something that sounds like support should. That sounds like belief.

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