Friday, 5 April 2013

Wolfie for a day…

A Blue Samurai ad in Tokyo
I’ve always had a special spot for the Japanese national football team: the Blue Samurais.  More so than the Taeguk Warriors of South Korea, or even my country’s Garuda team.  We all know about Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, and many other Japanese stars who have in the past plied their trade in Europe.  However, it wasn’t before the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar that I finally figured out who my favourite Japanese player is.

In the first round of the competition, Japan was losing to Jordan, until in the 92nd minute right defender Maya Yoshida scored a header, jumping into the cross from the left like a kamikaze hitman.  But it wasn’t Yoshida who captured my attention; it was the player who made that sublime pass.  A looping cross, the ball was struck so cleanly that the only thing Yoshida had to do was present his head at the end of the pass.  And that pass came from, none other than, the captain: Makoto Hasebe.

As the Asian Cup competition progressed, so did the way Japan played.  They demolished Saudi Arabia 5-0 and won 2-1 against Syria, with one less men.  In the semi-finals, they defeated South Korea in one of the most exciting games I saw that year.  Extra time didn’t suffice, and it needed a penalty shoot out to decide that giant-fest.  In the final, Japan eased over Australia 1-0.  And throughout this run of good results (I watch every single game of the Japanese side), my eyes were constantly glued to the play of Captain Hasebe.

With my cherished Hasebe shirt
Hasebe personifies skill, hard work, determination, vision, and of course, leadership.  He may not be as creative as Yasuhito Endo, but the Japanese midfield needed someone who could win balls, and that job fell to Hasebe.  Neither is Hasebe a prolific scorer like Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda.  However, the Captain did manage to get his name on the list of the tournament’s scorers when he sent in an opportunistic shot into the Syrian net.  And I was told that Hasebe doesn’t have a flashy girlfriend like Shinji Kagawa’s celebrated JAV Actress girlfriend Ameri Ichinose.

On the field, Hasebe oozes coolness and level-headedness.  He is not flashy, yet effective in his approach towards the game.  I guess, he would be any coach’s perfect “quarterback”, relaying instructions to the rest of the team.  And off the field, Hasebe is known to be a down-to-earth person, who features in numerous charity advertisements.  I saw an interview of him on German TV on youtube once, and he was full of smiles, speaking broken German.  For Japan, he is the perfect Captain.  And for me, he is a perfect model, someone I aspire to (but could never be) whenever I step on to a football pitch.

My respect for Hasebe would also translate into a new interest in his club, Vfl Wolfsburg, and the Bundesliga as a whole.  In 2011, Wolfsburg was a mediocre team.  But three years earlier, it had been the Bundesliga champ (it’s first ever in history), becoming one of the few German teams that could break the Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund domination of the league. 

Hasebe's public ad in VW Arena
This season, the team aren’t doing so hot either.  Their midfield relies too much on the Brazillian Diego, who awesome, but only human, and can have “off days”.  The front is led by Croatian Ivica Olic, who is still a killer striker, but not the same player he used to be in Munich.  The back-line has its gems, in the form of Naldo and Simon Kjaer.  But in general, there is obvious weakness to a side that has often resorted to placing Makoto Hasebe (a midfielder) as a left-back.

Yes, I originally liked Wolfsburg because it was Hasebe’s team.  But in the last two years, I have come to like the team just because.  I am a new Wolfie, and proud to be one.

And so, when I found out that I would have a “free” day during the visit to Berlin, and that the “free” day coincided with a match-day in Wolfsburg, I could only think about one thing: get myself to Wolfsburg, get a ticket, and watch the marvel that is in store for me.

On that bright Saturday, I got to Berlin’s Haupbahnhof at 9 o’clock in the morning and purchased a round-trip ticket on the DB’s Inter-City Express (ICE) train, which travels as fast as 300 km/h.  I still didn’t know if I’d be able to watch the game because I was unable to buy a ticket online.  And so, during the one hour trip from Berlin to Wolfsburg, I was very anxious, full of hopes, and fearing that I may have to settle with just visiting the city of Wolfsburg and the VW Autostadt, but not getting a seat in the stadium.

The majestic VW Arena
Upon my arrival in Wolfsburg, I was greeted by the awesome site of the Volkswagen factory, its smokestacks standing tall.  And to its side, the Autostadt, looked awesome, particularly the car vending machine which was copied in the last Mission Impossible movie.  But the most captivating sight actually lied further east of the beautiful river… It was the Volkswagen Arena, home of the wolves.  I wanted to deny it, but it surely felt like love on first sight.

I went into Wolfsburg downtown in search of the Vfl Wolfsburg fanshop, still anxious for a ticket.  And when the lady at the counter said that there were still tickets available, my heart almost burst with happiness.  50 Euros, but I didn’t even think twice about buying the ticket.  After spending some time at the fanshop buying souvenirs and fan items, I head straight to the stadium.

I was told that VW Arena only fits around 30.000 people.  But from the outside, it was as majestic as any of the stadiums I had ever visited: Upton Park, Loftus Road, Stamford Bridge, GBK, and Camp Nou.  Inside, it was even more magnificent.  Wolfsburg and Schalke fans mingled, brushed against each other, buying beer and sausages.  It was an ocean of green and blue.  I was a neutral, wearing black, but showed my affinity for the host team with a toque emblazoned with the W of the Wolfies…!

Wolfie toque and camera on hand
I sat myself seven rows from the green pitch, almost smack on the halfway line.  Around me were Germans, both wearing green and blue.  And next to me, a couple of Japanese girls, fully decked in Makoto Hasebe and Atsuto Uchida (he’s Schalke’s right back) fanwear.  I didn’t understand any of the languages spoken around me, but somehow, I felt very much at home.

And then, the PA announced the arrival of the host team.  And to my glee, Makoto Hasebe was assigned to lead Wolfsburg’s warm-up session.  This was a sign, Hasebe would be a starter on that day’s game, and I would be able to see my hero in the flesh.  I couldn’t stop taking photos; I was pretty sure that many other people there thought I was in the same group as the Japanese cuties seating beside me.  I didn’t mind; at times I wish I was Japanese.

As the warm-up session ended, people began to enter the stadium, and the noise started to build up.  The local fans were loud, especially those in the area across from where I sat.  The visiting fans were as loud.  I have to say, thumbs up should be given to those Schalke fans who have made their way to Wolfsburg that day.  The PA announced the line up, mentioning the players’ first names one by one so that the entire stadium could say together their last names.  And when the PA called out “Makoto…”, I blurted out the loudest “HASEBEEEEEEE…!!” of them all.

The game kicked off on time, true to the German culture.  And Makoto Hasebe played as a right-back, occupied constantly by the hard-running and persistency of Schalke’s  Michel Bastos.  I have to say, Hasebe actually did a good job; Bastos became very frustrated and his movement was curtailed to the side of the pitch.  Hasebe even made a last second tackle to avoid a goal by Klaas Jan Huntelaar. 

But of course, I noticed right away that Schalke was just too powerful upfront.  They had Bastos, Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, and the sublime Julian Draxler.  Their defence was so-so, but Wolfsburg’s firepower was not like the past, when Grafite and Edin Dzeko used to score like crazy.  Ivica Olic huffed and puffed, but he wasn’t creative enough, and his linkage with Bas Dost was limited.  Diego was shut down in the middle, and his assistant, Josue, looked too tiny to compete with the big Schalke players.

Celebrating Olic's goal
Schalke scored in the first half, but Olic brought the host to level five minutes into the second half.  For a moment hoped sprung in me that my team would be able to win the game.  But that hope began to slip away as Draxler once again put the visitors ahead with a spectacular goal.  On the 73rd minute, Hasebe was substituted, looking exhausted.  As well, coach Hecking may have wanted a more offensive option down the flank.  But with the departure of Hasebe, the defense crumbled.  The score at the end of 90 minutes was 1-4 for the visitors.

After the final whistle, I stayed in the stdium longer, trying to suck as much of the air as possible.  I didn’t want the feeling to end, and I made a promise to return again one day.  The train ride back to Berlin would be long, I thought.  But it would be a memorable one.

I had the time of my life.  On that sunny (yet chilly) Saturday
On a nice afternoon
afternoon, I felt like a local.  I drank beer, ate sausages, queued for the toilet, and was hackled and intimidated by a group of Schalke fans, as I walked to the train station with my Wolfsburg toque and bag.  I heard the songs of the fans, none of which I understood, but felt as much part of.  I jumped with joy when Olic scored, just like the other Wolfies, and sank my head when Schalke pounded “our” net with four goals.  Yes, I truly felt that it was “our” net.

On that glorious day, I was a Wolfie for a day, and maybe forever, if I may.

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