My passion for football has been on the wane in recent years, something that may or may not be due to the fact that in my humble opinion, most players in the UK are overpaid, overprotected, ignorant, racist, womanising, alcoholic thugs with barely enough social skills to buy a pint of milk and barely enough footballing skills to play their way out of a paper bag. Taking this into consideration, and seeing as England are currently battling it out in Euro 2012 (no doubt doomed to be knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals), I thought that now might be a good time to tell you the story of Naoki Matsuda.
At fifteen years old, Matsuda was playing as a striker for the junior high school team in his home town of Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture, when his coach had a request from Ikuéi High School in nearby Maébashi, asking if they had any decent defenders. The coach suggested that Matsuda try a change of position, and it soon became clear that this was where he had been destined to play all along. Having progressed to the Ikuéi High School team, he became the subject of a bidding war between no less than ten professional clubs, and was eventually signed by Yokohama F Marinos. (For no discernable reason whatsoever, the 'F' of Yokohama F Marinos is short for flügel, which among other things means 'wing' in German, and marinos is Spanish for 'mariner'.) Matsuda was named in the J-League team of the season in 2000 and 2002, and won the title with Yokohama in 2003 and 2004. He represented his country at every level from under-15 onwards, and boasted the rare accolade of having played at two Olympic Games, including a match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that became known as the ‘miracle of Miami’, when the under-23 side beat Brazil one-nil. He was in the Japan team that made it through the group stages of the 2002 World Cup, and ended up with a total of 40 caps, scoring a goal in his final match in 2005.
It is with Yokohama, though, that Matsuda will forever be associated, and where he made 385 appearances, scoring 27 goals and earning the nickname 'Mr Marinos'. He is also third on the J-League all-time list for red cards, and was by all accounts quite a prickly character, not to say downright scary (his autobiography, published in 2009, is called Toh-soh-nin (闘争人 / Conflict Man). In order to induce the proper fighting spirit before matches, Matsuda would often ask his teammates to slap him, a habit that once backfired when he was diagnosed with concussion. During a Nabisco Cup match in 2003, he became incensed by what he saw as foul play by a member of the opposition, and was heard to shout 'Yaru yo! Yacchau yo!' at the referee. Roughly translated, this means 'I'll do you! I'll fucking do you!' and was subsequently adopted by the Yokohama supporters as a terrace chant. Matsuda didn't always get on with his superiors, either, and during another Nabisco Cup match, this time in 2007, he apparently 'glared' at the manager as he was giving orders from the sidelines, and then refused to shake his hand after being substituted.
But such incidents merely served to endear Matsuda to his fans, and to demonstrate how passionate he was about the game. In a match in 2000 when Avispa Fukuoka opted to sit back and defend the lead they held over Yokohama, he stopped in the middle of the pitch, sat down on the ball and started hurling abuse at the opposition players. At a tearful post-match press conference, he said, 'Those guys aren't professionals. They don't seem to understand how their supporters feel, how desperately they're fighting for them.'
With ten minutes still to play in a match in the 2007 season, Matsuda volunteered to play in goal when Yokohama's keeper was sent off and their quota of substitutions had already been used up. Perhaps most incredibly of all (money-grabbing Premiership players, take note), he accepted a 40% pay cut when the club were encountering financial difficulties in 2007.
Yokohama finally decided to let Matsuda go in 2010, and after sixteen years of loyal service, he signed for Matsumoto Yamaga, who at the time were a semi-professional team in the third tier of the Japanese league. During a training session for Matsumoto on 2nd August 2011, Matsuda collapsed with heatstroke and was rushed to hospital. He had suffered a heart attack, and while for a time doctors managed to restore a faint heartbeat, Matsuda never regained consciousness, and passed away two days later, on 4th August 2011. He was just thirty-four years old.
As well as his wife and three children, Matsuda's funeral was attended by numerous members of the Japanese footballing fraternity, including the entire playing staff of Yokohama F Marinos, and among others, FIFA president Sepp Blatter sent a personal message of condolence. More importantly, Matsuda's death highlighted the importance of AEDs - automated external defibrillators - which are designed to be used in just such an emergency, when someone suffers a heart attack and professional medical help has yet to arrive. It is believed that Matsuda's life might have been saved had there been an AED on hand at the training ground where he fell ill, and there has since been a concerted effort to raise awareness of AEDs, and to equip a greater number of sports facilities, workplaces and public buildings with them.
Both literally and figuratively, Matsuda gave his life to football, and nowhere was this exhibited more clearly than in a speech he made on 4th December 2010, after his final game for Yokohama at the Nissan Stadium.
Speeches by the manager and club president were all but drowned out by chants of 'NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI!' and even after the players had performed a lap of honour and left the field, the chants continued. Eventually, Matsuda re-emerged from the changing room and took up the microphone, and this is what he said:
'Thank you very much for supporting me over the past sixteen years, even though I'm so selfish and impertinent. I've always been a bit crazy, but everyone has cheered me on, so...
'I like to think that I've fought hard and put my heart into every match for the Marinos. Of course I've pissed a few people off as well, but your support has given me strength.
'The Marinos' supporters are fantastic. At a time like this I can't quite put across how I feel about you, but anyway, all I can say is that you're the best. And I just feel thankful.
'I don't really know what I'm saying any more but... It's just that, I fucking love football, and I really want to carry on playing.
'Football really is the greatest. I suppose there are still some people out there who don't know anything about it, but I just want to appeal to them through who I am...
'I really want to show everyone what's great about football, so please let me carry on doing what I'm doing.'
I can't imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech like that (actually, I can't imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech), let alone one as heartfelt or as eloquent, and apart from the poignancy Matsuda's words have acquired in retrospect, they resonate because they express what so many football fans feel - what I felt when I was a boy, and what I still feel occasionally when I watch a football match - and embody the kind of qualities that are so often lacking from the modern game.
(In case you're interested, here's a transcription of Matsuda's speech in Japanese, as borrowed from this
ただ、もう何言ってるかわかんないけど… ただ、オレ、マジでサッカー好きなんすよ。 マジで、もっとサッカーやりたいっす。
Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route - as displayed on a nearby information board - and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider's webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn't much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom - quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.
I passed the highest point on the trail - the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji - almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.
While its surrounding stone walls - well, they were more like battlements - had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years' worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.
The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco
I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.
(金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja
(金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan
). The kon
of konsei means 'gold' or 'shining', and the sei
means, among other things, 'sperm' or 'sexual stamina'. So in the same way that the kintama
are one's 'golden balls', the konsei
are, so to speak, one's 'golden tadpoles'. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus - or phalli - made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.
This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn't thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.
At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don't know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.
As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn't realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel - or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel - an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.
Mrs M is now seven months' pregnant (or eight if you count them the Japanese way), and we keep ourselves amused of an evening by watching Muzuhashi Junior on the move. She seems to be most active just after we've eaten and just after we've gone to bed, and like a cat in a sack, when she kicks her legs or wiggles her arms, little comedy bulges appear in Mrs M's bump. Late last year, though, when we had only just found out the good news, M Jr was a barely discernable shadow on the ultrasound scan - like the kind of inconclusive photographs people point to as evidence of the existence of UFOs or life on Mars.
No matter how apparently healthy your baby is - a couple of weeks later, and despite being just 8mm long, M Jr's heartbeat was both audible and visible - the chances of miscarriage are relatively high if you have conceived with the help of infertility treatment. So Mrs M quit her part-time job and spent those first few months doing as little as possible - not that she felt like doing much in any case, as she was queasy from morning sickness most of the time.
Before the pregnancy we had made pilgrimages to various kosazuké-jinja (子授け神社 / 'child bestowing shrine'), and as well as tossing a coin in the collection box and saying a prayer, bought lucky charms called omamori (お守り) and ofuda (お札 - in case you're thinking of buying one, an ofuda is supposed to be hung on a south-facing wall and returned to the shrine if and when your baby is born).
Once you're pregnant it's time to visit an anzan
(安産 / safe childbirth) shrine, and to observe a somewhat obscure tradition called inu-no-hi
(戌の日 / dog day). Because they can pop out a healthy litter of puppies every year, dogs have long been regarded as symbolic of safe childbirth, although as opposed to the more commonly used kanji for dog (犬) the dog of dog day (戌) is the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac. There is therefore a dog year every twelve years and a dog day every twelve days throughout the year,
and on the first dog day of the fifth month of her pregnancy, the mother-to-be buys a length of white material called a hara-obi
(腹帯 / literally 'stomach belt'). The hara-obi is wrapped around her belly to support her bump, protect the baby and keep them both warm, although as Mrs M discovered, having your stomach bandaged up in several metres' worth of swaddling makes it hard to breathe and practically impossible to sit down. There is a very detailed description of dog day - in Japanese only - at this website
, and judging from the diagrams contained therein, Okah-san didn't wrap Mrs M's hara-obi in quite the correct fashion.
Shrines and temples, incidentally, make plenty of money from hara-obi, ofuda and the like, and tend to be conspicuously well appointed: above the entrance to the Izumotaisha child bestowing shrine in Kasama City is this enormous rope, which despite weighing in at a quite mind-boggling six tons is replaced every year.
After dog day we went along to the city welfare department to register the pregnancy, and to take advantage of the various financial incentives on offer to prospective parents. As if to emphasise the declining birth rate out here in the sticks, when we arrived at the reception desk the lights were off and there was no one in sight. The sound of laughter drifted over from the far end of the darkened office, along with the unmistakable aroma of McDonald's french fries, and after calling out a few hopeful 'Excuse me!'s, a woman eventually appeared and led us into a meeting room to complete the paperwork.
Despite managing to avoid the enormous expense of IVF, we were still entitled to most of the money back for our three courses of artificial insemination (which I have been reliably informed is referred to as IUI - intra-uterine insemination - in the UK), along with a large chunk of what we will pay for scans and antenatal care. Once M Jr is born, as well as child benefit (jidoh-téaté / 児童手当) we will get a nappy allowance every month for the first year of her life, although a cut-price car seat is one of many expenses to have been trimmed from the council budget due to the financial burden of the earthquake.
A couple of weeks later we went back for a Baby Welcome Class, which was mostly for the benefit of us dads-to-be. Using a life-size and life-weight baby doll, we were shown how to change a nappy (the midwife's advice was to avoid lifting the baby's bottom by grabbing hold of its ankles, as this can put unnecessary pressure on its lower back) and how to bathe the baby (for this we kept a towel draped over the baby's body help it feel at ease). The dads were also asked to wear a pregnancy simulation suit, so that we might better understand what it is like to use a Japanese-style squat toilet, for example, or lay out a futon, when you have acquired what is effectively a 10kg beer gut. In fact, the limit on weight gain during pregnancy - strictly enforced by most doctors - is a mere 7kg (just over a stone), and when Mrs M attended a separate antenatal class at the maternity clinic, most of the time was taken up with warnings about how bad it is for an unborn baby to be subjected to a diet of fatty foods.
At the Baby Welcome Class we were also shown an old NHK educational film, in which an expectant father - replete with eighties side-parting and large-framed, Buggles-style specs - was subjected to various tests and experiments. In one rather surreal sequence, a researcher swallowed a small, waterproof microphone and the father talked to the researcher's stomach as if it were his pregnant wife's. The resulting recording was played back to show how clearly an unborn baby can hear what is going on in the outside world, although in this case it was merely a rather stilted 'Hello? This is your dad. How are you?'
While babies can't see or smell anything when they're in the womb, their senses of hearing and taste are already developing, and a recent TV programme put forward the intriguing theory that up until they are three or four years old, about a third of children retain memories stretching back until before they were born. Of the children who were interviewed for the programme, several recalled the food their mothers craved during pregnancy, as welll as the moment of birth itself: one talked about the taste of a particular melon-flavoured ice cream bar, and another described the feeling of being popped out of his mother's stomach when she had a Caesarean, information they (probably) wouldn't have heard about second hand. (Apparently, such children are less likely to open up to their own parents, so the next time you meet a friend's or relative's toddler, try asking them what they remember and you may be surprised by the response.)
Other than the Baby Welcome Class, the only research I have done into becoming a parent is watching The Back-Up Plan on DVD, a thoroughly unremarkable film notable mainly for J-Lo's hairstyle, which looks as if she has been in head-on collision with a steamroller and a tanker full of industrial-strength bleach. Something tells me that the time has come to start reading Mrs M's ever growing collection of baby books and magazines...