What brings together a Word Cup winning legend of football, a Japanese rock group, a traditional dance outfit and a couple of cute ladies promoting a small town? Why, of course. It is an FC Gifu match day. Here is a look at what went on in the planning of this very VERY busy September 23rd in Gifu.
For reasons best known to myself I decided to arrive early at the stadium. My thinking was that it would be very busy and that I would need to get myself settled in before the mass hordes of the media arrived. I was reliably informed that this would be the biggest gathering of media since Ruy Ramos’ first game in charge of the club, and larger than when Nagoya Grampus came here last year.
When I arrived, I was far from alone. But I was the first person to put my bag in the media room, a feat I’m very proud of. At this time there were lots of people scurrying about; people that were far busier than I was. The first people to do their setting up for the big day were Japanese rock group Cinema Staff – the (nearly) all Gifu group that perform Gifu’s player entrance song.
They rehearsed their song twice, and I stood next to Gifu legend Tsukasa Masuyama, who is now an academy coach. As a frustrated musician – I did play the violin when I was younger, and I got up to the level of playing the Van der Valk theme – I was a little bit taken aback at how good they sounded live. I have this image of Japanese music in my mind of being an octave higher than UK music, and I generally don’t care for J-Pop/J-Rock etc. But Cinema Staff might have changed my stance on it. At this point in the day, it was already hot, around 28 degrees and I was beginning to wonder what it might be like for the kids who were to play on the pitch with Del Piero in an hour’s time.
The man himself shows up (although I have to admit I missed his arrival due to talking with Stadium DJ Ryosuke Kuze about how we simply must win this game – a conversation I had with him before the four previous home games – all of which ended in defeat. More interestingly for me (more interesting than Alessandro Del Piero? Yes, I think so) was getting to talk to Hirofumi Moriyasu. Moriyasu is a fluent English speaker and played for Gifu around six years ago, right when I was becoming a full time supporter. He has also played for Sydney FC in the A-League and on this day was to be ADP’s interpreter. Hiro (when I met him, he introduced himself as ‘Hiro’ so I think it is best to continue his wishes) now runs an a football school in Osaka that instructs their players in English as well as Japanese. This, in my opinion, is a very worthwhile initiative and one that is done in a few places now. Football is global, but is also an easy vehicle to push English language learning. Moriyasu teaches simple commands & instructions to youngsters and might be planning a trip down under as a kind of study tour. Watch this space! Well, this space in particular.
Waiting for the man himself….
10:30am (or just a few minutes after….)
Alessandro Del Piero, Juventus & Italy legend, steps foot on the Nagaragawa pitch. One of the kids actually looked at me and asked one of the staff “Is he Del Piero?” but when he saw the guy with shorts and black Adidas boots on, he soon realized his error. ADP shook hands with all the academy coaching staff before getting stuck into his kids coaching element – starting off with the youngest and making his way up the ages. Cameras followed him everywhere, as did a lot of people wearing various Juve and Italy shirts, hoping to get a glimpse of their one time idol.
He did his role superbly; chatting with the kids, playing some sumptuous through balls and some outrageous skills. I didn’t see him score but maybe he was too polite to do so. By the time he had finished, it was 11:15 and he had to dip away for a quick wardrobe change…
It’s one of the staples of FC Gifu match days – the local angle. I’ve said here, on Twitter and on podcasts millions of times before that J2 clubs NEED to make a connection to their local communities because, quite frankly, there are lots of other options for people these days. DAZN has all the games, Netflix, Baseball amongst others. It takes a lot to attract the casual watcher – which is who you need to attract in order to make them into the loyal supporter of the future. Today’s local theme was the Gifu University “Yosakoi” dancers and I’d be lying if I said I knew how to properly categorize their dancing style – modern/traditional Japanese is the best I could describe it as.
It was really good to watch and for their second part they included a group of mentally handicapped young people who participated in the dance. That part was exceptional to see and the dancing was really quite technical – everyone involved did a really good job.
Talk show time! I’ve been at FC Gifu when there have been only two or three camera people so to see a full bank of them was pretty surreal. Still, all the lenses were focused on Keiji Hirahata – Hira-chan to most – as he introduced Alessandro Del Piero and J.League deputy chairman Hiromi Hara to the crowd.
To be honest, Hara was a bit a spare wheel here – I’m not really sure why he was there. He didn’t contribute much but then I suppose he wasn’t really asked to. It was ADP that did the talking (and Moriyasu the translating). Del Piero waxed lyrical about his previous visits to Japan with Juventus and about how excited he was to meet Giffy (Yes, the Italian legend really said he was excited to see FC Gifu’s mascot). He was also asked about how Gifu could break out of their funk and other easy hits. It ended with a hug between ADP & Giffy – and off they went to prepare for their free-kick battle.
If you made a list of the top 10 free-kick takers of the modern generation of footballers, Alessandro Del Piero would be in there. How was it that he became to be involved in a battle with a provincial Japanese mascot? Well, it all started way back when – when a young Alessandro was watching the Italian version of Captain Tsubasa. fast forward a few years – a more than a few major honours – and Gifu attach to a company that uses Captain Tsubasa as its logo. A few phone calls and emails are sent between Italy, LA (where ADP is based these days) and Gifu and it turns out that Del Piero would be delighted to come and receive a Gifu jersey with Tsubasa on the sleeve. I wondered how this could have all been put together but I was told that one of ADP’s management team is a Japanese lady, and that she co-ordinated the efforts between Del Piero and the club.
Del Piero and Giffy (still feels weird typing that) entered the field hand in hand before Giffy was sent to the goalmouth to assess his goalkeeping options. ADP chose his spot just to the left of the ‘D’ – proper Del Piero territory. Best of three – and Del Piero curled his first effort into the bottom corner. His second was somehow pushed on to the crossbar by the mascot, while the third arced into the bottom corner again. 2-1 to Alessandro, and everyone was happy. An exchange of shirts later, and Del Piero was then off for his press conference.
Gifu’s media room very rarely sees the kind of activity that it saw last Sunday. When Ruy Ramos had his first game in charge against Kamatamare Sanuki back in 2014, it was rammed. This day felt a little less rammed but it was still heaving. The floor was given to NHK Gifu’s sports reporter Miki Watanabe who fired off a series of questions, including the obligatory “Do you have a message for the supporters?” To be fair, she asked some decent questions including “Have you ever been in a bad run in your career and how did you get out of it?” to which Del Piero replied “Well, not like Gifu are in now…..” with a bit of a dark chuckle.
Then it was open to the various media for a couple of questions. One person – I forget who but it might have been a Chunichi Newspaper reporter – asked Del Piero “Do you have any plans to sign for Gifu?”
Now, far be it from me to tell real media people how to do their jobs but it struck me that if you had a chance to ask a living legend of the game you cover, wouldn’t you choose a question with a bit more gravitas than a quasi-comedy question? I would – in fact I had my question lined up about how Japanese players had changed since he played against Hidetoshi Nakata in Serie A – but this guy completely wasted his chance. I hope he reflects on that in the future. You had the chance to ask Del Piero ANYTHING, and you chose to piss it away. Rubbish.
Del Piero went on to explain how his playing style was taken from Platini, Zico, Van Basten and Maradona and that he believes that football isn’t the be all and end all of life. He spoke eloquently about how kids need to find something to believe in and something to strive for in their lives and if it was football, great. If not, no worries. Just don’t put too much pressure on them – something I hope the parents in the room took on board.
And with that, Del Piero was gone – probably to get a drink because he spoke A LOT.
Ahead of kick offs in Gifu (and maybe other J.League grounds) there is always a kick in ceremony, where some local dignitary kicks the ball to referee so they can get the game underway. I’ve seen Paddington Bear do it. A guy dressed as Kimchi do it. The children of my friends do it. I’ve seen people cry doing it. Falling over doing it. Various things have happened in this carefully choreographed event. Of course, Del Piero was asked to do this – imagine that. You’re the referee of a pretty banal (by outside standards) J2 game, expecting the mayor of some countryside locality to kick you the ball but actually it turns out to be ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO! Imagine that??? I was a little disappointed ADP didn’t curl it around the referee but still, you can’t have everything.
Now, the game itself could get underway.
Half time. Gifu are one nil up thanks to Koya Kazama’s smart finish and everyone is in a great mood. Cinema Staff – remember them from way back in the morning? – come out to do their live set. It is no mean feat to set up for a live musical performance in five minutes, but they did and they belted out the Gifu anthem “Hyper Chant”, much to the delight of everyone in the stadium – well, those who weren’t outside getting food & drinks. Cinema Staff are fully live band – drummer, vocalist and two guitarists. For them to get set up, perform, and un-set-up (is that a phrase?) in under 15 minutes is a testament to their “roadies” and the Gifu staff. Great work.
Also, at half time, FC Gifu do a ‘half time caravan’ where the local sponsors and local dignitaries go around the stadium to promote their town/city/wares. On this day Ono town (in Gifu prefecture) and their lovely ladies led the caravan, followed closely by Gifu’s cheerleading group “GGG” – the wildly popular GGG I should say – and Del Piero & Moriyasu. I have to say, a lot of people were just as happy to see Moriyasu as they were to see Del Piero. The caravan came to an end, and the second half kicked off.
Full time, and a 1-1 draw didn’t really satisfy either team but at least Gifu’s losing run came to an end. I had to shoot off almost straight after the final whistle due to having to catch a train to Tokyo so I couldn’t really see the after party (as it were). But on my train to Nagoya then to Tokyo, I had time to reflect on the magnitude of the day for the club.
On the pitch, it didn’t go as planned, or as well as it could’ve done. But off it, the day was a huge success. The first important thing was the weather. It was almost perfect, after the blazing hot early morning, it cooled own to an acceptable temperature for all. Secondly, Del Piero was a gentleman. He took part in all events with humility and a sense of enjoyment. Thirdly, Gifu’s staff worked extremely hard both on the day, and in the run up to it. The president, Hiroyuki Miyata, and the PR staff did plenty of interviews with both traditional media (TV, newspapers etc) and new media (websites, YouTube accounts) – a smart move.
From its inception in May, through to the final whistle on the day itself, this event seemed like it could go wrong in many ways. What is Nike’s new slogan with Colin Kaepernick? “So don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.” Gifu dreamt crazy in thinking they could persuade Alessandro Del Piero to come to our humble city.
Crazy dreams do come true.