Kyoto Sanga for promotion from J2?

Ever since the J.League started, Kyoto Sanga have been on my mind. A bit like Ray Charles and 'Georgia' except I've not written a song about them. Yet.
I don't know why I've always been fascinated with Kyoto's main football team. Perhaps it was because they were called 'Purple' Sanga back then. I was a big fan of the singer/songwriter Prince in those days, so it figured. Support a team in purple whenever possible. Hence the Fiorentina shirt. But no matter which sports shops I looked in, I was always unable to track down a Sanga shirt. So it had to be worth the trek from Kobe Sannomiya to Kyoto to get a glimpse of purple, right? You bet! A quick call to JSoccer Magazine editor, Alan Gibson, makes it all possible. 'We'll go by Hankyu', he tells me.
'We'll go by what?' 'Hankyu.' 'What are you thanking me for? I haven't done anything. I should be thanking you.' 'It's a train line, you wally!' This train line sounds like a hankie to me and I think Alan needs one as he's sneezing all over the platform as we wait for our train. Three notes keep chiming through the Hankyu PA system and I remark that Stevie Wonder should get royalties for it. After all, those notes are identical to the opening of 'Sir Duke'. We arrive at Nishikyogoku station via Jusu 510 yen lighter in the pocket but not expecting a welcoming committee. A bunch of school kids shout 'Hello', across the train tracks, but I'm too busy trying to photograph a traffic cop brandishing a Star Wars-style light sabre to wave back properly.
While the police are futuristic, the stadium is far from it. Nishikyogoku Stadium reminds me of a Roman Coliseum. The columns and statues that surround it add a certain majesty. The walls may be crumbling in places, but they're no less impressive as a result. Once we arrive at the ground, we are greeted by a smiling yukata-clad girl, who gives us our press passes, programmes and pages of vital statistics. She even speaks some English, so Kyoto Sanga's hospitality would never be in question after that sort of reception. We have a bit of time to kill before kick off, so we have a look at some of the banners draped around the away end. Some of the artwork made by the Yokohama FC supporters looks so intricate that it could have fallen off the back of a lorry bound for Kyoto's Manga Museum. As well as celebrating the fans' love of their team in general, one individual star is, apparently, a more deserving recipient of adulation. A simple banner reads: 'King Kazu'. It celebrates the achievements of Kazuyoshi Miura, who's 45 now but is, amazingly, still in Yokohama's starting line-up.
'There he is,' shouts Alan. Kazu's just warmed up with the rest of the team on this balmy (not barmy!) night and now is on his way back to the dressing room for the pre-match team talk. My first impression is I can't believe he's 45. While his name might bear a passing resemblance to an iffy musical instrument, (you know, a comb and rice paper combined that makes a tooting noise?), the similarity begins and ends there. With his fashionable hair band and flowing locks, he looks every inch a pop star as opposed to a cheap kazoo busker. At his age, minutes on the pitch may be limited from now on, but a career as a football ambassador may beckon, judging by his friendly demeanour. Never one to miss an impromptu interviewing opportunity, Alan asks Kazu if he's accumulated a few more grey hairs since they last saw each other. Kazu replies with a smile: 'A few? Don't you mean a lot?' The banter continues, as Alan asks the legend if he can manage a minute on the pitch for each birthday he's celebrated to date. Kazu grins before replying: '45? I can manage 120. No problem.' I consider it an interesting prospect, particularly in the league, as there's no extra time, but we take the point on board. Kazu is as fit as a fiddle, or a butcher's dog, or perhaps even a fiddling butcher's dog! I can tell how 'genki' (healthy) he is, as while he grins his Hollywood smile at us, he's pumping my hand up and down during possibly the longest handshake I've ever experienced this side of a PR department's convention. I quietly wish all footballing legends behaved like this, as we head for the stand to get a pew with a good view of the pitch. There's a lot more handshaking and other aspects of footballing protocol to be completed before the action begins in earnest. No wonder games in J1 and J2 start at 7.04! Not that that's the reason for the strange kick-off times. Meanwhile, the non-descript mascots do their best at being 'kawaii' (or cute), as I try to work out what they are. Both sets of fans start chanting their songs, almost non-stop and the game kicks off. But it's getting played out in midfield much to my chagrin. I get distracted by the triangular-shaped floodlights and the Andrey Arshavin-sized flying insects illuminated like fireflies in the night sky. 'What the hell's that?' I ask, pointing above my head. 'It's a semi.' 'Looks more like a semi-detached. I'd hate to be neighbours with that!' Alan explains that 'semi' is Japanese for 'cicada'. There's so much going on above my head I miss the opening goal. I just see the net ripple and suddenly the game breathes into life. Kyoto's youngsters are coming into their own now, with 20-year-old Yoshiaki Komai showing some deft touches that belong at a much higher level. There's something refreshing about Sanga's attacks down the right, as Jun Ando raids forward from his right back position. Suddenly, Atsutaka Nakamura is rivalling Komai for the title of 'the trickiest customer on the pitch' while, not to be outdone, Takumi Miyaoshi provides the pass for the former to double Kyoto's lead in the second half. This is a very different Yokohama to the team that started the match, though. Kazu is either injured, ninja-ed or withdrawn for tactical reasons and hasn't appeared for the second half. But, even without their talisman, Yokohama are not prepared to throw in the towel. Which is just as well, as a lot of the punters are wearing them on their heads! Is it a fashion statement or a sign of madness in this heat? I'm not sure, but I know we're all mad about football here, so I'm in good company! Back to matters on the pitch, and it looks like Kyoto's energy levels have taken a dip since taking a two-goal lead. It's a strange phenomenon that often occurs with youngsters and the more experienced Yokohama side look poised to take advantage of it. Alan's sudden statement that: 'This game has draw written all over it' doesn't sound that crazy, as Yokohama pull a goal back through Yuto Takeoka. Talk about pulling a rabbit out of the hat! Takeoka must be a magician in his spare time judging by that inspirational strike! But the former Sagan Tosu midfielder's next 'miracle' is more Tommy Cooper than Jesus Christ and Yokohama have to look elsewhere for salvation. It's not going to come from substitute Yutata Tahara, unfortunately for Yokohama, as he looks more likely to add to his caution count than his goal tally. It's getting tetchy out there. Yokohama are pressing for an equaliser and Kyoto are hanging on. Just. The final whistle goes and it's jubilation time! Alan's pre-match prediction of a Kyoto promotion this season suddenly looks even more likely with most of Sanga's rivals dropping points. The players are heading for the dressing room, but before they do it's high fives all around with the ground staff. There's a lot of hissing going on, but Alan tells me that's short for 'otsukari samadeshita'. It means 'well played' or 'thanks for your hard work' or something like that! I'm glad the hissing has been explained to me, as I don't fancy seeing a snake at that time of night, or at any time come to think of it! Sliding his way out of the ground quite dejectedly is King Kazu. Alan hands him a copy of J Soccer Magazine, which Kazu graciously accepts. Kazu reads it as he makes his way towards the team bus. Attracted by the headlights, airborne insects and autograph-hunters alike are heading that way too, now that the triangular pylons have been turned off. The party's over for Yokohama perhaps, but not for Kyoto, who should be in the mix come the end of the season. As we board the Hankyu train back to Kobe, I can still hear the fans' chants ringing in my ears. 'What's the Kyoto?' Well, that's what it sounded like to me. Plus a song reminiscent of something I heard on the BBC's Morecambe and Wise Show from yesteryear. 'Bring Me Sunshine'. It looks like Kyoto will be enjoying plenty of days back in the sun of J1 soon, if they can continue to keep hold of Komai, Nakamura and Miyayoshi.

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