Friday night spectacle shows National Stadium’s potential as FC Tokyo’s home

Where does FC Tokyo’s future lie?

It’s a deceptively simple question with no clear answer — though Friday’s 2-0 victory over Gamba Osaka provided a few potential clues.

The significance of the game on the club’s outlook had less to do with the result — which came through clever goals from Adailton and Leandro — and more to do with the setting of the match and its implications for both Tokyo and the J. League.

Despite unseasonably cold weather and rain that fell from midday through the final whistle, the rebuilt National Stadium — the controversial centerpiece of last year’s Tokyo Olympics — proved to be the perfect backdrop for something that even some of the league’s biggest fixtures have often lacked: Spectacle in the form of lights, pyrotechnics and no shortage of fireworks, as well as a crowd the likes of which 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. “In order to get fans to want to return, you need that ‘plus-alpha’ element beyond soccer, and that’s something we want to keep developing.”

Current FC Tokyo owner Mixi has brought plenty of excitement to the match day experience since it came on as a sponsor, beginning with slickly produced videos introducing the team’s starting lineups.

This year saw a new entrance gate for the players replace the 2000s-era pair of giant inflatable tube men emblazoned with two of the club’s previous slogans — ”Sexy Football” and “Fearless & Cool” — as well as the introduction of pyrotechnics along the back stand.

But none of that held a candle to the display that greeted fans on Friday, with flames bursting from the center of the pitch, strobing lights flashing through the misty rain and fireworks the color of the club’s trademark blue and red cutting through the night sky.

The display concluded shortly before kickoff, with Tokyo’s players bathed in blue and red light as they locked arms in their pregame circle — a theatrical moment that clearly drew heavy inspiration from Scottish juggernaut Celtic’s famous huddles under green spotlights at Parkhead.

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

“Of course we have to improve our play and win more games,” Puig said Friday. “But in the process of growing the club I hope we can make use of such a centrally located venue.

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

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

It was also a welcome sight for the J. League, which aired its first television commercial in over a decade and distributed roughly 24,000 free tickets to games taking place during the Golden Week holiday period — including 10,000 to Friday’s match.

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

Through Round 11 fixtures played on Tuesday, the J1’s average attendance stood at 12,376, nearly double the 2021 average of 6,661 that was heavily impacted by pandemic-related emergency measures. While supporters are still not allowed to chant or sing — something the J. League is pushing the government to change — there is optimism that scenes such as Friday’s will generate buzz 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 that excited before a match,” J. League Chairman Yoshikazu Nonomura said. “If we don’t challenge ourselves, we aren’t going to exceed our pre-pandemic numbers, so we want to look ahead and try various kinds of promotions.”

With the theatrics drawing praise from fans, Friday’s game also reignited the debate over whether the National Stadium should become a permanent home for FC Tokyo, replacing Ajinomoto Stadium in the western Tokyo suburb of Chofu.

While the venue’s location near Shinjuku’s skyscraper district is a major draw, its flaws — from cramped seating and poor sightlines in the upper levels to narrow concourses and an incomplete roof that doesn’t always protect attendees from the elements — have many Tokyo fans holding out hope for a move to a soccer-specific venue, as most of the club’s peers have done or plan to do in the coming years.

Yet those issues — as well as the National Stadium’s infamously large running track — aren’t enough to dissuade Puig. After all, even an athletic track is a step up from the baseball stadium he called home during his two years as an assistant coach at Major League Soccer’s New York City FC.

FC Tokyo players celebrate after their win over Gamba Osaka at the National Stadium on Friday. | KYODO
FC Tokyo players celebrate after their win over Gamba Osaka at the National Stadium on Friday. | KYODO

“It’d be better to play at a stadium without a track, but this is a problem that every Olympic host city has faced,” Puig said. “You need to figure out the best way to use an Olympic stadium, and I think FC Tokyo can serve that role here.

“Visitors from around 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 major city. … As tourists come back to Tokyo, they’ll want to go to stadiums, and I want FC Tokyo to become a big part of the entertainment that Tokyo provides as a city.”

Tokyo last played the majority of its home games at the old National Stadium in 2000, but the club still holds tremendous affection for the ground in both its previous and current forms. Three of the team’s major trophies were won at the original venue — in 2004, 2009 and 2012 — while the most recent came at the rebuilt stadium in January 2021.

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

“FC Tokyo carries the ‘Tokyo’ name, and I think this stadium is a part of our future,” Puig said. “I hope we’ll play more games here, and as we do that it will feel more like home and more of Tokyo will feel like we’re their club.”

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