It was the last round of the ACL group stages and Seongnam were already through, needing only a point to secure top spot and a potential last 16 clash against FC Seoul, but still I decided to throw my Seongnam scarf and a few t-shirts in a bag and make the short trip to Osaka.
I booked in for three days in total fully intending on sampling all Osaka had to offer, by roughly 3pm on the first day it became obvious my sight-seeing was going to be restricted to Sake bars and sashimi restaurants.
I have a friend in Osaka and quickly after dropping off my bag at the amazingly cheap yet centrally located Toyoko Inn in Noda I made my way to Osaka Castle to meet him. It didn’t take long to realize that my friend hadn’t quite planned a tour of historical sites and museums to satisfy my hunger for cultural immersion.Within an hour I was on my third Mexican beer, second plate of Peruvian meat and just about keeping away from the Tequila tent, yes I was indeed at a pretty huge Latin American festival. A few Portuguese-Brazilian bands later and it was time to head back to Noda for a quick change and out to find some ‘raw fish’.
After dinner it was time to find a bar and hopefully settle down to watch Kashima Antlers take on FC Seoul, unfortunately Japan seems to have even less interest in televising football than Korea and I had to settle for watching text updates on Naver.com. The one of advantage of this was that at least I got to “see” Molina score Seoul’s third, and winning, goal. Apparently SBS lost the stream and nobody back in Korea was able to watch as Seoul grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat and secured their place in the next round.
A few more of Japan’s finest watering holes were visited before a trip back towards Noda and then the bright idea of “one for the road”. This took me into a rather dodgy area, if Osaka has such, and the confines of a small but cozy bar. It’s amazing how confident alcohol can make you and it wasn’t long before I was conversing with the locals like I had spent my youth there. The sober truth is that “Shunsuke Nakamura, yeah”, “Ki Seung Yeung, yeah”, “Celtic, Seongnam” is probably not going to get me on Japan’s Got Talent anytime soon.
Wednesday woke me up with all the subtlety of being awakened by a group of circus clowns bouncing on my bed. Of course today was a long day and as a veteran of long away days I knew just how best to approach this one. Coffee, followed by some fruit and cereal and then a long walk to clear the head and a constant supply of Gatorade was in order. My friend, Keunseok, unfortunately had different ideas and met me at Nipombashi station with a can of Yebisu Beer in hand and so it began.
The day was one of more raw fish and beer with the occasional meeting up with fellow Seongnam fans. We made our way to the stadium around 4pm, it is quite a hike. Gamba play in the Osaka Expo ’70 Stadium which is on the Osaka Monorail. It isn’t the easiest of places to find and I was really glad that my friend speaks Japanese as otherwise I might still be aimlessly wandering the subway system trying to find it.
We arrived pretty early at the stadium which gave us plenty of time to get tickets and have a look around the impressive array of food tents on the way to the ground itself. On the way to the stadium I bumped into @JSoccerMagazine who helped us secure a couple of tickets for the Seongnam end. And so with our bounty intact we headed back down to the tents and one final Asahi and a pretty amazing Bacon Quarterpounder (at least I think that’s what it was).
After the culinary delights of the tents had been exhausted we began to make our way back towards the stadium for what we hoped would be both a night of good football and success for Seongnam, unfortunately the two seem to be mutually exclusive at times. Walking back up to the ground it became obvious that there were quite a few Seongnam fans in attendance, in fact by my guess more than had made the subway trip to Seoul World Cup Stadium only a few days earlier.
Once inside the stadium we got settled originally in the best vantage point we could find but then decided to go down in among the singing and dancing group of black t-shirts that made up the main section of the Seongnam support. Just like at Sangnam the group leaders did a fantastic job of keeping the energy level up and the songs flowing, even at one point convincing me to attempt the lead a chorus of the ‘Seongnam Kapo’.
The game started well with both teams testing and pressing their opponents, Seongnam had done this to perfection in the home tie and looked to have opted for a similar tactic again in Japan. Although moving to join the main group of fans had improved my atmosphere at the match it has basically destroyed my view. Apart from being level with the pitch, throw in a running track and my not exactly eagle-eye vision and basically I could have seen as much from my hotel room. And so it was that when the ‘Slayer of Gamba’, Hwang Uijo, crashed an unstoppable effort into the net on 15 mins I had missed the goal. So much so that an AFC video showing the best 10 goals of the group stages does actually have a clip of the Seongnam crowd with me asking my friend who scored. The rest of the half was played out with both teams continuing to nullify each other for the most part. HT came and it was Seongnam who went in 1-0 up and looked like they had top spot secured. For being the J-League champions I haven’t been impressed with Gamba in the two matches I’ve seen and I definitely think FC Seoul are in with a decent chance of putting them out.
The second half was pretty much as we expected, Seongnam sat back to soak up and hit on the break and Gamba became desperate, knowing that a draw could dent their hopes of seeing the next round. They pulled one back on 65 mins through Usami and then with time running out and everyone in black getting ready to celebrate winning the group Gamba’s Brazilian Lins slotted the ball away and rounded off the scoring. I was a little disappointed to say the least at FT as having led for so long it was a bitter pill to swallow to see us throw it away. But as my friend said we are in the last 16 and now have to get ready for the giants of Guangzhou Evergrande who visit Tancheon first on May 20th.
After the match we parted company and I decided to sample some more of what Noda had to offer, an incredible mouth-burning Coco Curry, I should have listened to the waitress when she said it was spicy, was followed up by another trip to the previous night’s Sake bar to help promote Scottish relations.
The trip was amazing, it was everything that I hoped it would be and probably more. The result aside the match was amazing. Japanese fans are incredibly passionate about supporting their teams and their Ultras are pretty impressive both in numbers and noise. The Seongnam fans did their team proud and it was amazing to be in the middle of their support winning, drawing and even losing.
The news that all four Korean teams made it through to the last 16 is fantastic and looking at the fixtures you would have to imagine there could be at least one all-Korean match in the next round. Here’s hoping Seongnam are there although after this experience I kind of hope there is one more away day to go to.