attack of the Gunnersaurus Rex

10Aug13

A few weeks ago I went to Nagoya to watch the Arsenal v. Grampus friendly.  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the team that I’ve followed for years play live (that would be Arsenal, not Grampus), and it goes without saying that I was excited.  Though the match itself wasn’t very spectacular, it still offered up the typical incident that an Arsenal fan of the last several years might come to expect: the incredible pace of Theo Walcott, followed by a one-on-one with the keeper in which he waits too long to make a decision and ends up lofting the ball right at the keeper; a stunning save by Bacary Sagna (one of my favorite players) to rescue a defensive mishap that probably never should have happened in the first place; a third-minute headed goal by Giroud that seemed to take some of the intensity out of a friendly that was already only boiling at the intensity that one would expect a friendly to boil at; a crunching “reducer” by Wilshire; a Ryo Miyaichi home goal from a penalty (Miyaichi’s movement was fantastic); an almost disastrous error by Fabianski as he seemingly forgot where he was and threw the ball straight for a Grampus player; a fine goal (if perhaps offside) by Walcott to redeem his squandered chances from earlier in the match; and really fine play from Akpom and Zelalem, who are liable to feature prominently in the Carling Cup this season.  It ended 3 – 1 to the Arsenal.

All of that was just about as expected, but what I didn’t expect to see was Gunnersaurus Rex chasing the Nagoya mascot, apparently an orca, around the field.  I was strangely moved to see Gunnersaurus; it felt almost as if an old friend had unexpectedly arrived at a party after a long absence bearing a bottle of very fine Single Malt Scotch.  I’m not really sure why I like Gunnersaurus so much; everyone knows he has a wicked sense of humor, but I think it’s really the sad-sack lope and the look of stonily crazed enthusiasm that I like.  In his off time, I imagine Gunnersaurus at home with a beer and a bong saying things like “They call em fingers…but I ain’t never seen em fing…”

While I certainly wasn’t expecting to see Gunnersaurus in Nagoya (he’s come a long way since he was hatched from an egg at the Highbury Library in 1993), Arsenal’s defeat to Didier Drogba in the Emirates Cup was — alas! — all too familiar.

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The Arsenal v. Grampus match was held at Toyota Stadium in Toyota City, which is— not coincidentally — where they make Toyota cars.  The stadium itself is beautiful, an undulating triumph of concrete.  If concrete could be described as “sexy” or “slinky,” then Toyota Stadium is definitely sexy and slinky, but in a clean, family kind of way.  Attendance was somewhere above 42,000 — a record for the 45,000 seat stadium.  This did end up causing some problems though, as the ‘open seat’ tickets that we held didn’t end up coinciding with enough open seats so that my friends and I (a group of four) could all sit together.  There’s something exceptionally lonely about seeing a football match while seated by yourself among 42,000 other fans, none of whom you know.  Still, an enjoyable time in the end — especially with very cold beer added in to the equation.

Much more enjoyable, in fact, than the only other football match I’ve seen in Japan, which was an almost unbearably dull 0 – 0 draw between Vissel Kobe and the Kashima Antlers.  I think the high point of the match for me was when a Kashima player went down clutching his shin after falling about a meter away from the opposing player’s leg.  The referee looked at the player with amused scorn and sarcastically motioned for him to get up.

The Kobe Wing Stadium (pictured below) is also an absolutely beautiful stadium.  Three of the 2002 World Cup matches were held there: Russia v. Tunisia, Sweden v. Nigeria, and Brazil v. Belgium.

Stadia are weird places, or perhaps even a kind of non-place, since for so much of the time they remain dead, empty.  Sports fans are the blood and viscera of the stadium and without their presence the stadium is nothing but a shell, drifting outside of the stream of history.  Of course, training goes on and the lawn is watered, and charity events are held — but a mostly empty stadium is a kind of lackluster thing.  In Aristotelian terms we might say that it’s a substance that’s not living up to its essence.

Mascots, on the other hand, are just about all essence.  I’m still not sure what dinosaurs have to do with Arsenal FC, but the orca mascot of Nagoya Grampus is fairly self explanatory.  The golden grampus, or shachihoko in Japanese, is one of Nagoya’s most famous symbols.  Two of these enormous golden fish decorate the roof of Nagoya Castle, and you can buy 100 different varieties of souvenir featuring the shachihoko at any of Nagoya’s various tourist shops.  (A shachihoko magnet on my fridge does its best to keep my to-do list from ending up on the floor.)  The kanji for shachihoko can be written as either 鯱鉾 or 鯱 — and the second of these can be pronounced “shachi,” which is the Japanese word for orca.  And that’s why the Nagoya Grampus is an orca, and not some guy dressed up as an enormous golden fish.  Actually rather a pity, when you think about it.

The mascot pictured above — Vissel’s mascot — is Kobe beef.  Obviously.



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