Love, Revolution and Architecture: a Year in the Life of the Squirrel Nation, Part Three

This is the story of Omiya Ardija, a Japanese team living in the shadow of their near neighbours, the Urawa Reds. Read the first part here, which looked at Omiya’s remarkable promotion to the top Japanese division, a joy tempered as their inadequate stadium was demolished at the end of the 2005 stadium, and the loyalty of their fans — the “Squirrel Nation” — would soon be tested further. In part two, problems mounted as 2007 began, fans’ questioning the club’s transfer policy and the “salaryman coach”, but the Squirrel Nation kept up their passionate support despite poor results. Would Omiya survive in the top flight, as they opened their new stadium?

Built at a cost of some 400m yen — much of which was paid by the local council — the rebuilt Omiya Park has a capacity of 15,000, similar to Shimizu S-Pulse’s Nihondaira ground, with four separate stands built tight to the pitch. In contrast to the direction in which football stadium design is moving in certain other countries, it is not an all-seater venue in that the stands behind each goal feature terracing at the front and seats at the back. The only roof is down one side over the main stand, another particularly striking feature being the colossal hairdryer-style floodlights.

NACK 5 Stadium Omiya in all its glory

NACK 5 Stadium Omiya in all its glory

For the Squirrel Nation, it was their new home. The official opening game of the NACK 5 Stadium Omiya — retitled following a sponsorship deal with a local radio station — took place in early November, when with just four rounds to go in the 2007 J1 season, Ardija hosted Oita Trinita. It could scarcely have been a more delicately balanced fixture: a crucial relegation six-pointer, in which both sides knew that a win would see them take a giant stride towards safety.

The place was packed, each stand a sea of orange and blue. The scene was set for arguably the biggest day in the club’s history and just three minutes in, midfielder Yoshiyuki Kobayashi grabbed the headlines as he took advantage of sloppy Oita defending to fire in the opening goal from twenty yards.

After such a stunning start, though, Omiya dithered and allowed the visitors back into the match. It was no surprise when Yuki Fukaya tapped in a close-range equaliser midway through the first half and Omiya’s coach Satoru Sakuma appeared content to concede the initiative altogether with his tactical changes, even as the match stood at one goal apiece. Ardija had a few half-chances after the interval, but the home side were usually second best. Sure enough, four minutes from time, Trinita forward Shunsuke Maeda scored the winner from close range.

The Squirrels had blown it. Oita took back with them to Kyushu three priceless points in the fight against the drop; Omiya were still deep in trouble and had lost the first match at their beautiful new ground in front of 15,000 fans. “The stadium’s a palace,” wrote one despondent member of the Squirrel Nation afterwards, “It’s too good for this Omiya team.”

Seconds before kick-off against Oita Trinita

Seconds before kick-off against Oita Trinita

The Final Countdown: 3

All across Japan, there are twenty three minutes to go in the penultimate round of fixtures in the 2007 J1 season. At a heaving Saitama Stadium, Urawa Reds have moments before gone a goal down in the top of the table crunch match with improving Kashima Antlers. Elsewhere, two teams are fighting to avoid the drop — hopelessly out of form and now in the relegation play-off spot, Sanfrecce Hiroshima trail 3-0 at Kawasaki Frontale, while just above them on goal difference, our Omiya Ardija are tied at 1-1 against FC Tokyo.

The preceding weeks had seen Omiya claw their way out of the relegation places. A handful of draws, that sensational 1-0 win over Urawa in the return derby match and a couple of narrow defeats of other struggling sides have seen Satoru Sakuma’s side give themselves a chance of staying up. The last few games have felt to the Squirrel Nation as if the team were playing on a knife edge, but unbelievably, with closest rivals Hiroshima three behind to Kawasaki, a victory over Tokyo would see Ardija practically guaranteed survival and J1 football at Omiya Park next year.

It’s just that coach Sakuma doesn’t seem to have realised this. Going for three points is the last thing on his mind: both strikers have been substituted, the Squirrels are playing 4-6-0 and are inviting the opposition to put them under pressure. It looks almost willful, Sakuma’s refusal to acknowledge that an attacking approach against a mid-table side with nothing to play for might yield dramatic results. And Tokyo midfielder and goalscorer Naohiro Ishikawa gathers the ball wide on the right, preparing to launch another attack.

What’s on the NACK 5 menu

What’s on the NACK 5 menu

The Final Countdown: 2

There’s a minute on the clock now. Reds are still losing, as Kashima — playing with only nine men after two red cards – threaten to blow the title race wide open with what would be a sensational victory. Tokyo continue to press forward against Omiya, even though Sakuma has finally succumbed to reason and thrown on a striker: the injury-prone Naoto Sakurai, who hasn’t scored a single goal all year. Kawasaki continue their stroll to victory over a shattered and demoralised Sanfrecce side.

For this is turning into merely the latest in a string of defeats for Hiroshima, in what has been a disastrous second half of the season. Boasting what is on paper one of the most dangerous front pairings in the country in veteran Brazilian goal machine Ueslei and his razor sharp foil Japanese international Hisato Sato, fans can’t grasp why results are so poor. But the fact is that due to a total collapse of form, coach Mihailo Petrovic’s Sanfrecce side have picked up just two points from the last 24 and have plummeted down the standings to their current position.

With Ardija’s game at Tokyo petering out to a 1-1 draw, Sanfrecce Hiroshima will go into the final match of the year knowing they need to beat third-placed Gamba Osaka, while relying at the same time on Kawasaki to get at least a point at Omiya. Difficult, yes, but — with Ueslei and Sato on board — maybe not quite impossible. They’re still in with a chance. It’s not over yet.

The Final Countdown: 1

Thirty seconds to go. The Red Army urge their team onwards, but the game looks to be up for them today; to retain the title, Urawa will just have to win at relegated Yokohama FC next week instead. Still three down in their match, Sanfrecce’s thoughts have by now also turned to their next match against Gamba, while another FC Tokyo attack has just broken down against Ardija: Omiya’s Leandro picks up the ball just outside his own area and brings it away from danger.

He advances forward into space, the Tokyo forwards slow to track back alongside him. Brushing off a challenge, the big defender exchanges a swift one-two with Daigo Kobayashi that takes out another couple of opponents and sees him across the halfway line. Leandro doesn’t have that much speed, but what he does have is power and momentum. This is enough to take him away from Tokyo’s Ryoichi Kurisawa and by the time Masahiko Inoha tries to get close enough to the ball to make a challenge, all of a sudden Leandro is barely thirty yards from goal. The whole of the home side’s defence has opened up before him.

Inoha has other ideas. Racing alongside his giant opponent and by this time desperate not to concede a free-kick or worse, with one lunge he makes a vital play for the ball. But Inoha’s touch is weak; aiming to flick it out for a corner, the Tokyo man simply nudges it further on and Leandro takes it in his stride, now clean through on the goalkeeper. Exposed, Hitoshi Shiota seems caught in no man’s land, backing off and then edging tentatively forwards to meet the onrushing Brazilian, but Leandro, now twelve yards out and unstoppable, makes up Shiota’s mind for him as he crashes the ball over the keeper’s shoulder and into the back of the net.

It’s 2-1. He’s actually scored. Leandro ran the entire length of the pitch and he scored. Omiya are winning. In the space of twelve seconds, one player has saved their season. The area of the stadium reserved for away fans is transformed into a mass of shrieking, orange-afro-wearing pandemonium, as the Squirrel Nation leap up and down, high-fiving and screaming at each other uncontrollably. The players mob their team-mate and Satoru Sakuma is caught on camera looking to the heavens, covering his face with his hands in a kind of ecstatic disbelief.

Leandro, Ardija hero

Leandro, Ardija hero

The Final Countdown: 0 (Postscript)

In the last fixtures of the 2007 season, Omiya Ardija drew 1-1 with Kawasaki Frontale and Sanfrecce Hiroshima drew with Gamba Osaka. The Squirrels’ place in J1 for 2008 was therefore confirmed as being safe and a few days later, Satoru Sakuma stood down as Ardija coach. His replacement was announced as being Yasuhiro Higuchi, who had in 2006 and 2007 led Montedio Yamagata to bottom-half-of-the-table finishes in J2. Hiroshima subsequently participated in the relegation play-off, which they lost 2-1 on aggregate to Kyoto Sanga. Urawa Reds lost 1-0 to Yokohama FC, a sensational defeat that allowed Kashima Antlers to pip them for the league title via a 3-0 defeat of Shimizu S-Pulse.

And so ended a rollercoaster J1 season, one the Squirrel Nation will not soon forget.

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