The legacy of the 2002 World Cup has given many Japanese cities state-of-the-art stadiums, and Sapporo is no different.
The 41,580-seat Sapporo Dome played host to Germany’s 8-0 humiliation of Saudi Arabia in that tournament, as well as David Beckham’s exorcism of his World Cup demons with a match-winning penalty against Argentina.
But the stadium has not been able to stage as many successes for local team Consadole Sapporo as Hokkaido fans would like.
Admitted to the J. League as part of the final expansion of the single-division entity in 1998, Consadole subsequently went down to the new J2 at the end of the season as relegation was introduced to the league for the first time.
The appointment of current national team coach Takeshi Okada briefly turned the club’s fortunes around, winning promotion back to the top flight in 2000, only to slip down again two years later as the demands of J1 proved too much for a young side.
But after a long struggle in the wilds of the second division, Sapporo is finally back in the big time.
Powered by the goals of Brazilian striker Davy and the defensive wiles of Yushi Soda, Sapporo led the field for practically all of last season until a late wobble left the club needing a result on the final day to make sure of promotion.
A crowd of 28,090 held its breath at the Dome until Davy struck an 83rd-minute winner against Mito Hollyhock to clinch the second-division title for Consadole.
With a trip to defending champions Kashima Antlers the first assignment for the club on its return to J1, coach Toshiya Miura is aware of the effort the club will have to give to remain there.
“We are back in J1, and we want to stay up next season,” Miura said last week. “I think we need at least 40 points to stay up, and I hope we can play well and achieve that. “We don’t have any special players on our team. Every player must work hard for the team. We have some good young players, and of course the foreign players will be very important too.”
Sapporo begins the season heavily tipped to go straight back down, but Miura knows all about the pressures of survival.
The coach was in charge of Omiya Ardija when the unfashionable Saitama club clinched promotion to the top flight in 2004, and stayed at the helm for the next two seasons to keep it there.
“I think this experience will help,” Miura said. “I took a lot of small details from that time on how we can stay in J1, and of course this gives us an advantage.”
Miura is also aware that his side does not just represent the city of Sapporo, but the entire island of Hokkaido.
The J. League has long been the exclusive stomping ground of the big Kanto, Shizuoka and Kansai clubs, but Consadole does not want for enthusiastic supporters keen to shift the balance of power to the north.
Miura acknowledges the part the fans can play in urging his team toward J1 survival.
“Sapporo Dome is a multipurpose stadium, so we can play all season,” he said. “In winter it is very cold in Hokkaido, but in the Dome it stays warm.
“In the last two games of last season, we would have been promoted if we had won. I think something like 30,000 turned up for each match. The supporters are fantastic, and this season we want to get an average of 20,000 for each game.”
But Consadole is not alone in the affections of Hokkaido sports fans. Baseball’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have enjoyed tremendous success since relocating to the island in 2004, winning the Japan Series in 2006 and finishing as runnerup last year.
The Fighters’ supporters regularly pack out the Sapporo Dome, but Miura believes the two teams can coexist peacefully to bring pride to fans of both sports.
“Our club wants to cooperate with the Fighters,” he said. “We have offices next to each other, and we look at ways we can work together. Our supporters want the Fighters to do well, and it is the same the other way around.
“Our supporters are fans of both football and baseball.”
Editor’s note: In Friday’s paper, Urawa Reds manager Holger Osieck will offer his thoughts on his team for the 2008 J. League season.