A Game Too Far (Jubilo Iwata vs. Tokyo Verdy – J1 Playoff Final)

Jubilo’s Koki Ogawa breaks Tokyo Verdy hearts in the J1 League Promotion/Relegation Playoff.

Before coming over to Hungary I lived in Tokyo and followed Verdy who – like Vasas FC – are another former championship-winning side fallen on hard times. Tokyo Verdy (formerly Yomiuri Verdy and Verdy Kawasaki) won Japan’s top flight 7 times in the 80s and 90s, boasting players such as legendary goal-snaffler Kazu Miura and Brazilian-born Japan international Ruy Ramos.

Unfortunately, the team I saw was a shadow of that illustrious group, and had languished in the J2 League since 2009. They had a habit of over-relying on two ageing Brazilian journeymen (Douglas Viera and Alan Pinheiro) to get goals despite the fact that the pair often looked uninterested and unmotivated.

Verdy have been a wildcard in J2 for a while now, following up promising promotion pushes with near-relegations on a semi-regular basis. Despite this they have a loyal and dedicated “ultras” fanbase (although without any of the variegated connotations that phrase has in the West) who – like most J-League fans – perform elaborate choreographed chants and flag-waving displays throughout the entire 90 minutes of every game. Here’s an example from the first game I attended against Zweigen Kanazawa (apologies for the vertical video – I was young and naive).

Anyway, after years of struggle, Verdy scratched and clawed their way to the Promotion/Relegation Playoff Final against Jubilo Iwata, the J1 team who’d finished 16th this year.

Verdy’s path to the final was miraculous – grabbing 6th place on the last day of the regular season, they then faced the uphill struggle that is the Japanese playoff system. As the lowest seed, Verdy needed to win a total of three games to gain promotion – and by win I mean in normal time – any draw would have seen them knocked out in favour of the higher seeds. Also, all three games would be played away from home.

A 71st minute Tomohiro Taira goal saw them creep past Omiya Ardija in the quarter-final, but the semi at heavily-fancied Yokohama was the biggest upset. A 97th minute winner by Viera – after an assist by the rising angel-like Verdy goalkeeper Naoto Kamifukumoto in a goalmouth scramble – sent the Tokyo team into the final and the Brazilian head-over-heels into the euphoric fans.

But yesterday’s final against Iwata was a tantalising step too far. The home team controlled most of the game and won 2-0 thanks to a Koki Ogawa penalty and a spectacular freekick from former international Taishi Taguchi. It reminded me somewhat of my own team Middlesbrough’s UEFA Cup final run, where a ridiculous semi-final comeback win was followed by a processional final defeat against Sevilla.

Still, well done to Tokyo Verdy for instilling a bit of pride back into the club after some disappointing years. Hopefully next time I’m in Japan I’ll be watching Tokyo Verdy vs. FC Tokyo in the J1 League where the club belongs.


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