Japan loves its football, there's no two ways about it.
That was certainly apparent as the country's most star-studded game - Vissel Kobe vs Sagan Tosu - approached on a beautiful day in Hyogo Prefecture. Even two and a half hours before kick-off, every square-inch was taken up by excited fans roving the Noevir Stadium, an almost science-fiction complex flanking the Shin River.
It would be easy to lose count of the number of food stalls, with queues winding their way back to ticket booths and innumerable goal posts lining a small park already hosting their very own pre-match games. Travelling five metres without an endless reel of 'Iniesta' and 'Torres' jerseys would have been an impossible task.
The J-League has been an institution in Japan for decades now and some of the country's most decorated players have plied their trade in front of a home crowd. The likes of Keisuke Honda, Kazuyoshi Miura, Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo have all dazzled their native audience before exhibiting their talents on an international stage.
Yet, it's some of the big name players from the western expanse of Eurasia that have helped to advertise the J-League's brilliance across the globe. Gary Lineker is perhaps the most famous example by finishing his career with Nagoya Grampus Eight, a club that was later managed by the legendary Arsene Wenger.
Iniesta, Torres and Podolski
Of course, Wenger would then go onto manage Arsenal, where he would implement lessons learned during his time in Honshu, down to the very design of the Emirates Stadium's dressing room. Players such as Diego Forlan, Freddie Ljungberg and Michael Laudrup also took to the field in Japan before hanging up their boots.
Now it's Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski making the headlines as Japanese football's biggest imports. It should be no surprise then that Vissel Kobe and Sagan Tosu has become such an intriguing fixture with all three players, World Cup winners no less, involved in the clash.
Podolski paved the way for the trio, putting pen to paper on a deal with the Ushi after starring for an assemblage of top European clubs in Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Inter Milan. Iniesta followed suit the following year, setting his sights on Japan's seventh largest city after an astonishing career with Barcelona and Spain.
As for Torres, his destination was Sagan Tosu after rounding off a fairytale return with Atletico Madrid. Widely regarded as the world's best striker back in 2008, he also boasts a gold-lettered resumé after spending time with Liverpool, Chelsea and AC Milan.
The reputation of these three players has injected an extra dose of excitement into a league that already flaunted talent and passion. As a result, it was no surprise to sense the anticipation around Kobe as the triumvirate of superstars laced their boots for a stellar J-League clash and calling a result was no easy task.
Vissel Kobe vs Sagan Tosu
When the two sides met back in August, it was victory for Sagan Tosu with Torres finding the net in a convincing 3-0 victory. That would bode well for Sagan, only they sat rather precariously in sixteenth place while their rivals Kobe found themselves five places north but only by a slender four points.
Walking out into the Noevir Stadium and every minute saw another cohort of empty seats filled with supporters, with the steep stands of the ground undulating into an atmospheric bowl. Although a completely modern complex, it certainly harboured the character of a much older structure and the atmosphere was just as suspenseful on this side of the Himalayas.
Any stereotypes about supposedly quiet and reserved Japanese football fans were quickly dispelled, with both sets of supporters rustling up an incredible ambience. There were enough Vissel Kobe scarves in the Kop for an impression of Anfield and every home fan held up red sheeting to create a superb pre-match display.
The Sagan fans gave them everything they had too, though, and transported a huge banner across their concentrated corner of the stadium. The uniformity with which the home end chanted and bounced would remind many of Iceland supporters with one section creating a thundering applause throughout.
Eventually, the first whistle blew after both teams emerged to deafening rock music and – rather bizarrely – a rendition of ‘Three Lions.’ It may have been overplayed to the point of tedium in England, but Vissel Kobe projected it alongside their bold statement to become the number one club in Asia.
HT: Vissel Kobe 0-0 Sagan Tosu
Sagan started the better team with Torres lurking up front, clad in the captain’s armband and looking for another strike against Kobe after a pedestrian first few months. Nevertheless, the ominous sight of Iniesta loitering between the lines surely had nerves jangling in the partisan away section.
Within the first 10 minutes, a delightful back-heel flick from the Spanish maestro quickly sparked ‘ahhhs’ along the sold-out crowd. There was quality all across the pitch but time seemed to stand still when Iniesta gained possession with his effortless passing and almost symphonic dribbling.
That being said, it was Kyogo Furuhashi who proved one of the most dangerous players throughout the first-half. He could have bagged himself a hat-trick in the space of 10 minutes after almost tackling goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, latching onto an Iniesta pass and narrowly missing an acrobatic diving header.
The Ushi began to flex their muscles as the half progressed, Podolski registering the first shot on target after uncharacteristically taking aim with his right foot. It was his left boot that produced handball appeals, however, with Sagan being saved from a classic Podolski thunderbolt by a penalty area deflection.
In truth, there were very few clear opportunities in a goalless first-half with touchline hostilities, after a tackle on Mu Kanazaki, offering the most fireworks. Sagan looked starved of the ideas that saw them conquer their opponents just three months before with Kobe winning the opening 45 minutes on points.
Not a second passed without the home crowd cheering, supported by the waving of an assortment of flags and artistic banners draped behind them. Japanese snacks such as udon and ramen were lapped up across the four stands, quite the contrast from the Bovril and balti pies of English football.
Although the refreshments, language and alphabet had altered, that universal fan experience at the ‘beautiful game’ felt right at home under the sunlight in Kobe.
FT: Vissel Kobe 0-0 Sagan Tosu
The home side were the first out of the tunnel for the second-half and started with a determination to find the goal that had long evaded them. Furuhashi was once again the danger man, but sent groans around the stadium after firing terribly off target in the 48th minute.
It was quickly becoming apparent that Torres wasn’t getting the service he needed from Sagan, finding himself isolated up front. The Spaniard was left with his back to goal, struggled to hold up the ball against the Vissel defence and was helpless to penetrate the high-line.
Meanwhile, on the hour-mark, Vissel Kobe were really starting to show their dominance in midfield with Iniesta’s magic rubbing off on his teammates. It saw the Ushi create the best opportunities of the game with Gonda called into a crucial save and Leo Osaki heading agonisingly wide from a corner.
Based on the atmosphere, you’d be mistaken for thinking Sagan and Kobe were playing out a dramatic 4-4 draw. With enough bouncing to give the foundations a workout, a goalless 70 minutes didn’t stop a competitive back and forth between the fans.
Torres’ frustrating afternoon was compounded with an early substitution and the Sagan attack swiftly became a more dynamic force. It quickly inspired a reaction from the home side with Podolski eventually joined up front by Brazilian export Wellington, who previously sported the colours of Hoffenheim.
Podolski offered the final moments of opportunity late in the game, with his lethal left-foot narrowly missing the mark twice. Yuji Ono responded with an opening of his own, but a wayward volley ensured the final whistle closed out a goalless affair.
Vissel Kobe will probably kick themselves that they didn’t take their first-half opportunities and the visitors must be happy with a point.
In terms of the three big-name players on the pitch, Podolski is the one who can hold his head the highest and was unquestionably the biggest threat on the pitch. On another day, he could have been the match-winner for Kobe and probably deserved a goal.
There was little doubting that Iniesta looked a class above with the ball at his feet, yet he disappeared during the second-half and struggled for service. It’s clear that the old magic is still there, but he was certainly lacking that extra bit of energy over 90 minutes.
It was an afternoon to forget for Torres, even if he can’t be blamed for the lack of service and quality defending from Vissel Kobe. That being said, he should have done much better at maintaining possession and he continues to struggle for a consistent run of form in the J-League.
Speaking after the game, Torres reflected: “They had the control of the ball all the time and we struggled to play even counter-attacks. The second-half was a bit better with more chances but for us, it’s a good point.
“They have a great manager. He’s doing what he did in the past with the other teams he coached, so they’re starting to play a different style. Getting possession of the ball and finding really good positions for Iniesta and Podolski, who are free and can create.”
Podolski certainly found himself frustrated with Sagan’s style of play and felt the visitors were happy to settle for a point. He explained after the game: “I think for a good game you need two teams, today only one team plays, so we were a little bit unlucky. I think we had 20 shots on target or something like and this is sometimes football.
“I think we play a good game, it’s not easy when a team like Tosu just kicks long balls and defends and waits for mistakes. For a good game like that, you need two teams and only one was playing."
All in all, Vissel Kobe vs Sagan Tosu certainly won’t be remembered for entertainment but it served as a brilliant display of what the J-League has to offer. It not only showcased some top quality players, yet also highlighted the vibrant footballing culture of Japan and their incredibly passionate supporters.
They created an atmosphere in a 0-0 draw that simply must be admired and sadly, wouldn’t be present at plenty of top Premier League clubs. In the land of the rising sun, the light shone brightest for the fans on November 10.