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Groundhopping: Shonan Bellemare's BMW Stadium

Friday 15th June 2018

With not much else to do in deep Kanagawa on a Friday night, I took a long train to the beachy Hiratsuka for some exciting domestic cup action at the BMW Stadium. It was actually my girlfriend who suggested going to the game. She works in Hiratsuka, a city in deep Kanagawa notorious for its long stretch of beach. The larger area is referred to as Shonan. It’s known for its easy way of life by the sea and big surfing community. It's the one place in Japan you won't be overwhelmed by suits and ties.

Having been to areas like Enoshima, Fujisawa, and Tsujido, I’ve noticed the large civic pride Shonan has for its local football team. It's all they have. There isn’t a major baseball or any other sports team. Their J1 side is their biggest sporting outlet. The green-and-blue is somewhat mesmerizing around Sagami Bay, much like MLS side Seattle Sounders. You soon realise you aren’t in Yokohama anymore.

The league competition has already finished for the break, but the players not going to Russia this year still have to navigate some cup fixtures here in Japan. This specific match is part of the J.League Cup playoff round. A two-legged tie will determine who proceeds to the next round. The opposition is Vegalta Sendai, who themselves travelled a fair distance. It's the best part of three hours from Northern Kanto for this game by the beach.

I’d already penned an away day for Yokohama F. Marino’s visit but with the wifey working a stone’s throw from the ground and there being limited times we can go to live football anyway, it was the perfect scouting trip. This being a late kick-off, we felt it best to play along with fate and go to the game.

Quite frankly, I’m glad we did. I received an advanced warning regarding the awful infrastructure works around the ground. The train station itself is fine, but the dedicated bus service should use a different adjective. The electronic destination display read 'RAPID' service, one-stop to the ground. It was far from. Having narrowly missed the 6:40 pm service, the next one didn’t leave until seven, the scheduled time for the kick-off. seven

We should have been there earlier, I agree. Yet, dedicated service should be more frequent. Fans want to see the kick-off! We lumped the idea of the humid late-running bus in favour of a taxi.

Scrambling in, we arrived at a nice park area with a carnival atmosphere. Neither Tom Jones nor the Electric Light Orchestra was playing but the stadium was all decked out for the Shonan game like they might be. Stalls selling food surrounded the park. Beer tents flanked the path to the ground. Blue and green lights lit up the scene like those of Shibuya crossing. A real sense of pride and wholesome hedonism filled you up as you walked through to the stadium.

First, though, we had to find the ticket stand. This was a late plan, so we hadn’t purchased them prior. We're not good at this, are we?

Seats were a little pricey for a cup playoff game, close to £20 each. More cost effective than my trips to Arsenal, but dearer than Yokohama games. To rub insult to injury, the attendant gave us misleading information which meant we had to circle the stadium to get to our gate. Or that's what we thought she said. Such are the perils of not understanding the local language of the country in which you have freely chosen in which to reside.

Somehow, we found our seats with a few seconds to spare, allowing us to spare a glance to analyse the surroundings. The ground recalled the default pitches in FIFA. Town Park, eat your heart out. A circular ground with a classic athletics feel. The lower side stands allow the tallest trees to poke their leafy heads above the top row and catch the match from outside without a ticket.

A running track around the pitch did put a little distance between the game and the fans but it was by no standard a big ground. With the standing section at each goal end, it made for a good atmosphere where the songs could reverberate a little and filter through to the players.

The Shonan fans had a good chorus from the start, encouraging their players to get forward. Only 15 minutes in, we heard the night's first bellow. Umesaki had put the home side ahead.

The visitors from Sendai brought a fair few to the ground. If you look at the map of Japan, you’ll appreciate that Sendai to Shonan is a fair distance, like Liverpool to Brighton. Close to a three-hour trip, just to get there. With that in mind, it was going to take more than one goal to dampen these hardened away fans' spirit. They continued to sing their songs, which were quite interesting in their own right. They have a ‘rock’ theme. All of their songs are re-hashes of classic rock songs; with Vegalta Sendai/football lyrics. At one point, they just sang “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister as a straight cover. A real oddity, for sure.

The rest of the half played out at a steady pace; with no real further incident or remarkable events. Dee Snyder did not invade the pitch in full makeup and regalia. At halftime, I took the opportunity to browse the food selection, as well as the multitude of banners the fans had brought into the stadium. Fried chicken and chips were the order of the day. A bit salty, but a good flavour. Apparently, if you wait until the intermission, you miss the run on burgers, which were sold out. No pies at all. You're not in England anymore, Dorothy.

I waltzed around the concourse enjoying the decor provided by the home fans. Notable highlights included the Hiratsuka Bellmare banner, which I now understand to be a nod to the club’s former identity. They changed it to Shonan to encourage others from a wider area to support the club. An interesting concept. Should football clubs expand? Greater Manchester United? Midlands FC?

As I pondered the corporate-like activity of the club, the second half started. It was clear only one team was at the races today. Shonan enjoyed most of the ball and the fans enjoyed chanting about it.

I believe I was in the weird-and-loud section. One man behind me began high-fiving everyone in sight when the next goal arrived. It had been coming since the restart, but, probably having missed the dedicated service, didn't arrive until the 71st minute. Umesaki again. He subsequently came off to a standing ovation. Literally, from me, I suddenly had no seat. Don't ask, I don't know.

Okamoto effectively put the tie to bed when he added the team’s third in stoppage time. The fans exited the ground in sheer delight knowing that barring a disastrous away leg, they would be through to the next round of the cup.

The bus home was a lot more orderly than the one to the ground. Watching the fans exit while waiting was a pleasing experience, the backdrop adding to the general happiness.

All in all, it was a successful recon mission for my future trip as an away fan. The game was good, the fans were up for it, a pleasing day out. It was a little expensive for on-the-day tickets and the chicken wasn’t amazing, but it’s made up by the local atmosphere of the local area. Would recommend, with a warning to arrive early.

Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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