We had the Nagano Footy tournament this weekend and I can be proud to announce that we qualified for the Champion of Champions Tournament Saitama in January! That's the third time in three years! And what makes it all the more amazing was that we did it with only twelve players. As a result, I think everyone in the squad is feeling a lot of stiffnes and pain in their legs, but the knowledge that we'll be playing in Saitama again more than makes up for it.
So how did the weekend go? Well, I had to give an open day lesson at one of my school on Saturday, meaning I had to miss the games on the first day. I drove up after the lesson and met the team for dinner, where they told me the fantastic news that they had won all of their games! Also, even without a proper keeper, they'd kept clean sheets in every game! So, we were seeded second for Sunday's knockout tournament, giving us a bye to the quarter-finals and time for a lie-in.
The quarter-final was against Yamanashi prefecture. Will opted to keep the same defensive line-up that had shut out teh teams on Saturday, and put my fresh legs at left-midfield. The game was quite tight until Will burst into the penalty area towards the goal line. I met his low cross eight yards out and poked the ball past th e 'keeper. First goal for me for Niigata and 1-0 to Niigata. Unfortunately, just before half time the Yamanashi winger chased a ball that almost went for a throw. A mazy run later and Yamanashi equalised. 1-1 half-time. In teh second half, we where determined to get another goal. Niigata kept pushing but couldn't find the net. In the dying seconds, Rich carved out a chance for himself on the edge of teh box, only fo rteh referee to blow for full-time. 1-1 full-time, penalty shoot-out. Will got his, Yamanashi missed! Luke scored his, as did Yamanashi. Rich's penalty went just wide, Yamanashi scored. James got his, Yamanashi scored though Glen got a hand to it. Dechy scored his, Yamanashi missed, 4-3, Niigata go through the the semi-finals and qualify for Saitama!!!
The semi-final was against Saitama, our rivals and victors of this years Champions of Champions tournament. It was a chance to set the record straight and a chance to play against an old team mate too! Saitama were strong from the start. Niigata did well to keep them from scoring and even had a couple of chances too. It ended 0-0 so another penalty shootout. Will, Luke and James scored all of their penalties. Saitama missed one and it ended 3-2, Niigata go through to the final!
We had a break until the start of the final. We had dinner (obligatory curry and rice) and tried to keep warm as it started to rain. By the time the final started it was clear that fours hours of footy in two days between 12 players was taking it's toll. Niigata were very tired, but determined to put in a good show. Alas, Chiba were too strong and quickly scored two goals. Niigata held on until half-time, where we regrouped, got our selves together and put in a determined second-half display. We conceded another two goals, but that didn't stop us regaining our confidence as Will led us forward and Chiba started to tire in the last ten minutes. We had a string of corners and a free-kick which Will rattled off the crossbar. The final whistle blew, Niigata were defeated, but we took heart from our last ditched rally at the end and the prospect of playing in Saitama in January.
So, in the end, job done. We have a place in Saitama. The new squad has a proven core of 12 players and a fantastic team spirit. All that's missing is a few subs and a bit more fitness, both of which I'm sure we can find in the next three months. ANd I'm sure we can rustle up a set of genki supporters to build us up and scare the other teams!
COME ON NIIGATA!