FOR A city with 14 million people, Tokyo seems a very quiet place. It is a metropolis of great contradictions, indeed Japan as a whole is a nation of great contrasts. Public transport runs on time with immaculate precision, but nobody speaks on the trains. At the same time, escalators talk to you, toilets warm your rear and squirt water into your nether regions, the famous Shibuya crossing bamboozles you with imagery and foreigners are warned to “be quiet…because that’s the Japanese way”.
So what would you make of a Japanese football crowd? Given any audience at a game is naturally noisy, you would assume that football is everything that Japanese society is not. Only recently, Gamba Osaka got into trouble for some fans waving flags that appeared to have Nazi insignia emblazoned across them. Three years ago, Urawa Reds had some issues over “Japanese only” slogans. There’s a suspicion of foreigners in Japan that is evidenced when you board a train – if your skin is not the same tone as a Japanese, you are viewed with some curiosity, especially outside of the centre of Tokyo. Overseas visitors might even hear the word “Gaijin” which is used to describe a foreigner. It is generally viewed negatively and mainly used by xenophobes. Mostly, Japanese people are charming and welcoming, polite and reserved – as the tourists will find out in 2020 when the Olympics roll into Tokyo.
The J-League, now 25 years old, has its fair share of foreign players, although regionally, the rise of China and its transfer fees, is putting some pressure on Japan’s top clubs. Needless to say, there are more Brazilians – around 40 – than any other nation. South Korea has 18 players plying their trade in the J-League. There are also two North Koreans.
That football crowd, then. Game of the People travelled to Yokohama to see Yokohama F Marinos take on Gamba Osaka at the Nissan Stadium on April 30. The train from Yokohama central station to Shin-Yokohama was packed with blue-shirted Marinos fans. But it was deathly quiet. Again, on arrival, with hundreds of football fans heading for the stadium, there was no noise. I had predicted a big crowd as Marinos are well supported and Osaka were riding high in the J-League, but the walkways to the arena, just 40 minutes from kick-off, were empty. The atmosphere seemed very subdued as we approach a ground that hosted the 2002 World Cup final.
It’s a vast place, all well-scrubbed concrete and efficient access. It’s also the largest in Japan with a capacity of 72,000. As we reached the entrance, we could hear the hum of the crowd inside the stadium – the reason the journey had been so quiet. Aside from a little Japanese reserve, the tumbleweed walkways could be explained by the fact the ultras were already inside, singing for Yokohama, Osaka and Japan.
Beneath the stands, there was the feel of a very clean multi-storey car park. The food concessions were so orderly you had to wonder if you were really at a football match and the sight of a fresh vegetable stall in the concourse was very puzzling. Someone suggested it was a stall selling produce from Osaka, but we never found out. It added a very surreal element to the pre-match, a smiling, bowing lady selling bamboo, radishes, giant apples and other staples of the Japanese diet.
The home fans sang their hearts out for 90 minutes, although the ultras behind the goal could not have seen much action. The sightlines at the Nissan Stadium were poor with at least half a pitch between the seating and the field of play. It may be a well-constructed arena, but it is certainly sub-optimal for football.
You feel completely detached from the action which, given the quality of the deciding goal, was a little unfortunate. Gamba Osaka’s winner came after 64 minutes from Ritsu Doan, created by a clever back-heel. It is doubtful if many people in the 31,000 crowd truly appreciated the quality of the goal.
Yokohama tried to retrieve the situation, but were unable to break down a well-drilled Osaka team. The final whistle went and the singing stopped instantly. The fans packed away their flags and filed out with their rubbish in hands. The queue for the recycling was long, Japanese fans have this admirable habit of collecting their rubbish and making sure it is despatched in the right bin.
This made them very popular at recent World Cups. Japan have qualified for the past five World Cups and look set to be in Russia in 2018. Football, or should we say, Soccer, is still very popular in Japan and J-League crowds in 2017 are the highest for some years, an average of almost 20,000. That said, the goals-per-game ratio (2.44) is at its lowest level. Japan’s football has a great deal of credibility, however, and has demonstrated it has staying power and the potential to nurture talent that eventually plays overseas. Moreover, Japan also has a decent TV broadcasting deal in the form of a 10-year contract with Perform that is worth JPY 210bn.
This season, reigning champions Kashima Antlers, who made a splash in the FIFA Club World Cup in December, are currently top of the J-League, but Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka are chasing them hard. Japanese teams are faring relatively well in the AFC Champions League this year, with three in the last 16 of the competition – Kashima, Kawasaki and Urawa. Japanese teams have not won as many Champions League titles as perhaps they should have and it is nine years since Osaka lifted the top regional prize.
Kawasaki Frontale will face Thailand’s Muangthong United and Urawa will have to get past South Korea’s Jeju United. But Kashima face the toughest task in meeting Guangzhou Evergrande of China, winners in 2013 and 2015. The two-legs are on May 23 and 30.
You cannot help admire the Japanese matchday experience, there is a refined vibe that is pretty alien to British football grounds. Critics might suggest it is a little antiseptic, but you could not fault the level of commitment from the supporters for 90 minutes. There is much to learn from a fascinating and endearing country.