The Friday night show shows the potential of the National Stadium as the home of FC Tokyo

Where does the future of FC Tokyo lie?

It’s a deceptively simple question with no clear answer, although Friday’s 2-0 win over Gamba Osaka provided some potential clues.

The match’s significance to the club’s prospects had less to do with the outcome – which came thanks to clever goals from Adailton and Leandro – and more to do with the match setting and its implications for both Tokyo and J. League.

Despite the unseasonal cold and rain that fell from midday until the final whistle, the rebuilt National Stadium – the controversial hub of last year’s Tokyo Olympics – proved to be the perfect backdrop for something that even some of the biggest ones have often missed. league matches: the show in the form of lights, fireworks and no shortage of fireworks, plus a crowd that hasn’t been seen since the start of the pandemic.

“There were a lot of first-time fans here and we wanted them to feel the excitement,” FC Tokyo president Shigeya Kawagishi told NHK. “To get fans to want to come back, you need that ‘more alpha’ element in addition to football, and that’s something we want to keep developing.”

The current owner of FC Tokyo Mixi has brought a lot of excitement to the match day experience since joining as a sponsor, starting with precisely produced videos introducing the team’s starting lineups.

This year a new entrance gate for players replaced the pair of giant inflatable tubular men from the 2000s decorated with two of the club’s previous slogans – “Sexy Football” and “Fearless & Cool” – as well as the introduction of fireworks along the stopped.

But none of it stood up to the spectacle that greeted fans on Friday, with flames exploding from the center of the pitch, strobe lights flashing through the misty rain, and club blue and red fireworks cutting through the sky. night.

The performance concluded just before kick-off, with Tokyo players bathed in blue and red light as they hugged their arms in their pre-match circle, a theatrical moment that clearly drew inspiration from the colossus’ famous pampering. Celtic Scottish in the green spotlight at Parkhead.

While Tokyo is still a work in progress as a team, as evidenced by Tuesday’s disastrous 5-1 away defeat to Avispa Fukuoka, manager Albert Puig sees matches at the National Stadium as the key to building the club’s reputation.

“Obviously we have to improve our game and win more games,” Puig said on Friday. “But in the process of growing the club I hope that we will be able to take advantage of such a central location.

I hope that the fact that we were able to play here today becomes a turning point for the future of the club. “

The atmosphere created by the 43,125 crowd was a refreshing change of pace for Tokyo, which in 2019 became only the third club in the J. League with an average of over 30,000 fans per game, only to endure two seasons of crowds. depressed by the pandemic.

It was also a welcome show for the J. League, which aired its first TV commercial in over a decade and handed out around 24,000 free tickets to matches that took place over the Golden Week holiday period, of which 10,000 for Friday’s game.

Friday’s game, which attracted 43,125 fans, was the first J1 game to take place at the National Stadium since 2014. | KYODO

During Round 11 matches played on Tuesday, the J1’s average attendance was 12,376, nearly double the 2021 average of 6,661 heavily impacted by pandemic-related emergency measures. While fans are not yet allowed to sing or sing – something the J. League is pushing the government to change – there is optimism that scenes like Friday’s will generate excitement and bring fans back to stadiums across the country.

“The atmosphere was good and it was the first time in a while that I was so excited before a game,” said J. League President Yoshikazu Nonomura. “If we don’t challenge ourselves, we won’t exceed our pre-pandemic numbers, so we want to look forward and try various types of promotions.”

With the theater drawing praise from fans, Friday’s game also reignited the debate over whether to become the permanent home of FC Tokyo, replacing Ajinomoto stadium in Tokyo’s western suburb of Chofu.

While the venue’s location near Shinjuku’s high-rise district is a major draw, its flaws – from cramped seating and poor visibility on the upper levels to narrow atria and an incomplete roof that doesn’t always protect attendees from the elements – have many Tokyo fans resist hoping for a move to a football-specific venue, as most of the club’s colleagues have done or plan to do in the coming years.

Yet these problems, as well as the infamous National Stadium running track, are not enough to deter Puig. After all, even an athletics track is a step up from the baseball stadium he called home during his two years as assistant manager at Major League Soccer’s New York City FC.

FC Tokyo players celebrate after beating Gamba Osaka at the national stadium on Friday. | KYODO
FC Tokyo players celebrate after beating Gamba Osaka at the national stadium on Friday. | KYODO

“It would be better to play in a stadium without a track, but this is a problem that every Olympic host city has had to face,” said Puig. “You have to find the best way to use an Olympic stadium and I think FC Tokyo can fill that role here.

“Visitors from all over the world who come to New York visit Yankee Stadium and watch the Yankees play, and I think that’s something you see in every big city. … When the tourists return to Tokyo, they will want to go to the stadiums and I want FC Tokyo to become an important part of the entertainment that Tokyo offers as a city. “

Tokyo last played most of their home games at the old National Stadium in 2000, but the club still has enormous affection for the ground in both its former and current form. Three of the team’s main trophies were won at the original venue – in 2004, 2009 and 2012 – while the most recent arrived at the rebuilt stadium in January 2021.

A second match at the National Stadium, in mid-September against Kyoto Sanga, will give Tokyo a chance to show it can improve Friday’s results, both on and off the pitch.

“FC Tokyo is called ‘Tokyo’ and I think this stadium is part of our future,” said Puig. “I hope we will play more games here, and as we do it will feel more like home and more Tokyo will feel like we are their club.”

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