There could be quite a party in Yokohama this weekend as Yokohama F. Marinos attempt to secure their first title in nine years.

By Matthew Hernon

Leading the J-League table by four points, they play at home on Saturday against an Albirex Niigata side with nothing to play for, yet supporters in Japan know nothing can be taken taken for granted in this division.

Dramatic finales have included a five-horse race that went down to the final minute of the season in 2005 while two years later leaders Urawa Reds threw the championship away by losing to Yokohama FC, a team who had already been relegated with the lowest points total in J-League history.

Letting slip seemingly unassailable leads has been commonplace in the top flight in Japan over the years and Marinos will be desperate to avoid a similar fate happening to them. If they do fail to beat Niigata on Saturday and Urawa or Sanfrecce win, then it will once again go down to the wire with Marinos facing a tough final day of the season clash away at local rivals Kawasaki Frontale.

Former Japan defender Yuji Nakazawa, who scored their winner last weekend against Jubilo Iwata, believes they should have things wrapped up by then.

“If we don’t win the next game then this (the victory over Jubilo) will mean nothing,” says the 35 year old. “Losing would be unforgivable.”

Nakazawa is one of five players at the club, along with Shunsuke Nakamura, Yuzo Kurihara, Dutra and Marquinhos, who have won a J-League title. We spoke to the latter last month and he told us that the club were in confident mood as they entered the final stage of the season.

“It is so close up there, every game is like a play-off now,” said the Brazilian. “Of course there are some nerves, but I think that is something we enjoy and thrive on. On top of that we have players who have been in this situation before and won titles.”

After years of mid-table mediocrity, it is great to see Marinos back at the top. Inspired by Shunsuke Nakamura, they have been the strongest team in the division this year and three points against Niigata will see them claim the title that they deserve. It should be some atmosphere at the Nissan Stadium on Saturday. They have already sold over 40,000 tickets for the game, though with a 72,327 capacity there are still plenty available. It’s a match that could be well worth seeing.

*Former Man Utd defender Bill Foulkes, who survived the Munich air disaster and went on to win the European Cup, sadly passed away this week aged 81.

A towering figure for the Red Devils, he made an astonishing 688 appearances for the club, bettered only by Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes. His most memorable moment for the team came in the European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid where he scored the winning goal at the Bernabeu giving Man Utd a historic 4-3 aggregate win, sending them through to their first ever European Cup final. It is a goal that Bobby Charlton remembers fondly.

“I couldn’t believe what he was doing in the Madrid penalty area in the first place,” said the World Cup winner. “Something must have triggered in his mind, then George Best crossed it and Bill side-footed the ball into the back of the net.

It was one of the most important matches in the history of Manchester United so you could say he helped change that history.”

Less well known about Bill Foulkes is that he also worked as a head coach in Japan. Somewhat of a pioneer in the country, he took over the reins at Mazda SC (Now Sanfrecce Hiroshima) in 1988, before the advent of the J-League. Introducing an English style to their game, Mazda were promoted to the top flight during his time at the club, helping to lay the foundations for Sanfrecce, who lifted the J-League title in 2012.

After returning to Manchester Foulkes continued to work with Japanese players, helping them find clubs in the area. He also acted as a stadium guide for Japanese guests who visited Old Trafford. A true legend of the game, he will be sorely missed.

Image courtesy of Yokohama F. Marinos