Football in Japan’s incredible city of Nagasaki

Football in Japan’s incredible city of Nagasaki

THERE IS AN EERIE CALM TO THE CITY OF NAGASAKI, which is difficult to gauge. It is a spellbindingly friendly city, one which is rightly proud of a heritage which stretches back centuries, of looking out to sea toward the wider world in a way that the rest of Japan was once reluctant to emulate.

Nagasaki is a city which preaches the importance of peace, yet there seems to be an ethereal density in the air, which you could almost scoop out with a spoon. It is also an atmosphere that could just as easily be a figment of the imagination.

It is impossible to enter the city of Nagasaki without feeling the weight of history hanging in the air. An atomic bomb visited this place on 9 August 1945. The buildings in the centre of Nagasaki are all relatively new. It makes sense, but it is still visually jarring. There are no instances of the old sitting side-by-side with the new, as you see in so many other big cities.

Then you see the skeletal trees along the pavement, standing testament to the horrors of another time. Tilted slightly, bare of leaves. Silent witnesses. There is a calm solemnity to be found when you visit the hypocentre itself, while the peace park is a wonderfully positive place. The Atomic Bomb museum pulls no punches, and nor should it.

It is a peculiar sensation to drive away from Nagasaki and suddenly see the eventual sprouting of older, more traditional Japanese buildings, which survived the blast, the further you travel away from the drop site.

Nagasaki is a city which is fully conscious of its historical standing. It tries to project itself as a lesson to the world. In doing this, it largely succeeds, and now, through football, it has a new conduit with which to continue spreading the word to the wider world, and to also impart the story of the atomic bomb to their own younger generations. 

During the November international break, at the kind invitation of Hummel, I found myself sat in the Nagasaki Athletics Stadium, watching V-Varen clinch promotion to the J1 league for the first time in their history.

At the beginning of the year, V-Varen almost went out of business. With a new owner came new horizons, yet promotion at the first time of asking has still come as a joyous surprise. Akira Takata is the miracle-maker.

Looking much younger than his 69 years on this planet suggest, he possesses a warm smile and an infectious enjoyment of what is unfolding at V-Varen. A proud but private man, he is often reluctant to speak to Japanese media, but was happy to put time aside to talk to These Football Times, a few short hours before the biggest game in their limited history.

Takata, whose path to fortune originally stemmed from his father’s camera shop in his hometown of Hirato, went on to open his own business in 1986. Diversifying from cameras into many other spheres, it included the fronting of his own television shopping channel and grasping the internet retail age. The megalith that is Japanet Takata was born. 

When bankruptcy loomed in February for V-Varen, Takata stepped in, assuming 100 percent control of the club by late-April. Having gradually passed the running of his business on to his son, Takata’s retirement couldn’t have been better timed for V-Varen. After a lifetime of hard work and rich rewards, Takata could finally allow himself something different, something for himself, and something which was for the good of his home city.

V-Varen, whose name translates as Victory-Peace, had laboured to a 15th-place finish in the J2 league in 2016. With attendances plummeting and the club haemorrhaging money, a questionable future seemed in store. This was massively at odds with a club and a city that has the vast potential for footballing growth.

Before V-Varen, Takata had satisfied his sporting itch as no more than a distant spectator. Preoccupied with a successful business career, he had still harboured a latent interest, thanks to the inspiration of his grandmother and her enthusiasm of sport.

During Takata’s travels around Europe in the early-1970s, his sense of keeping sport at arms-length was accentuated by the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games.

Tentative no more, Takata strikes the appearance of a contented man, enjoying his new role. The high fives and the grateful handshakes he receives from disbelieving fans must be a very different experience from his decades in the business world.

Takata spoke on his hopes of how sporting inspiration can have a positive influence on Nagasaki; emotional motivation working to propel the city and V-Varen forward through the triumvirate of the players, the fans and those behind the scenes at the club.

On the evening V-Varen clinched promotion, with a 3-1 win against Kamatamare Sanuki, a record attendance of over 22,000 had congregated to see it happen. At the onset of the campaign, fewer than 4,000 were in attendance. Amongst that support was Hisanobo Nishino, a man who had seen the entire journey from the very inception of the club in 2005, onward through its 2013 introduction to the J League system, before it went on its incredible swing from near bankruptcy to the brink of promotion.

A choreographer of the V-Varen support, he was almost blissfully dazed by the occasion. Helping create an electric pre-match atmosphere, which leaned more towards a South American style than European, he was too focused on the game ahead to allow himself to dream of life in the J1.

Hisanobo’s grandparents had survived the atomic bomb, and he was another vocal advocate for peace and how football can promote that concept, something he takes with him on the road to away games.

With immense pride, he insisted that Nagasaki was a special place and that V-Varen were a special team. It was hard to argue against either notion on such a vibrant night, which had all the sensory stimulants of a cup final experience. It was impossible not to be swept away by the wide-eyed enthusiasm of both Takata and Hisanobo, two representatives of the club, placed at each end of the spectrum of V-Varen’s collection of custodians. 

Hummel’s 2015 unique creation of a peace shirt, which the team wore in competitive action, is set to be repeated next season in V-Varen’s debut campaign in the J1. It is a concept which ticks every box of what both Takata and Hisanobo preached about the importance of peace to the city of Nagasaki.

This was also echoed by club captain, Yusuke Murakami, when I asked him of his hopes for the future of the club and what promotion could mean for the city of Nagasaki. Aiming high, with dreams of winning the championship and of seeing his club reach the AFC Champions League, he saw it not only as a path to professional ambition, but more so greater avenues to promote V-Varen as a symbol of peace. 

It is with a strong sense of belief that Murakami suggests this is possible, and should V-Varen continue to display the aggressive football which has led them to promotion, then they will have all the tools to achieve his dreams.

These, however, are new horizons which V-Varen will reach out for without the on-pitch influence of Murakami after he took the considered decision to retire from playing, and instead join the coaching staff, for the next chapter of his own personal footballing voyage.

Head coach Takuya Takagi, speaking within the immediacy of promotion, struck the visage of a man who was simultaneously shocked and relaxed about what had unfolded. Predominantly concerned with the welfare of his journeyman Spanish striker Juanma – a man whose previous club had been Hearts of Midlothian – who had pulled-up midway through the second half with what appeared to be a significant strain, Takagi could easily have passed for a man who had just switched off the engine of a car after an eight-hour road-trip.

It was with a knowing wry smile and a slight raise of an eyebrow that he produced a string of conservative answers to a succession of conservative questions during his post-match press conference. There was almost an air of Carlo Ancelotti to his mannerisms. Takagi came across as yet another person associated with V-Varen that you just couldn’t help but like.    

If V-Varen are to see regular big attendances in the J1 then you get the feeling that the sky might just be the limit for them. Should they prosper, the potential is immeasurable. Takata, despite having not bought into the club for obvious gain, might well prove to be in the right place at the right time once again.

With a supporter’s glint in his eye, he shared his ambitions of challenging at the top-end of J1, the big games against the established giants of the Japanese game, and, more poignantly, a match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, one that can represent a symbolism of peace.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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