Along with New York City and London, Tokyo is one of the world’s three major hubs for finance, politics and culture. But how does Asia’s ‘Capital’ rate when it comes to football, the world’s most popular game and in recent years relevant political and economic tool?
To begin with, let’s have a look at the history of professional football in Tokyo.
The Past: The Milano Model
Professional football in Japan’s capital has revolved around two clubs: Tokyo Verdy, who began their J-League history in neighboring Kawasaki, and FC Tokyo. The two major clubs mirror those of many of the world’s football cities, such as AC Milan and Inter in Milan; Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow; and Barcelona and Espanyol in Barcelona.
Overall this is a great model that prevents dispersion amongst supporters; football citizens usually pick one of the two teams, becoming instrumental in the yearly crescendo toward the season’s climaxes known as derbies.
Often, cross-town rivalries becomes a surrogate to more important titles that are more difficult to reach. Take Roma and Lazio in Italy as an example: they rarely lift a trophy, but each and every year supporters live to win the Derby della Capitale and finish the season above their archrival.
Indeed, some of the Tokyo Derbies over the last decade were intense affairs. The two sides’ encounter in April 2008 began with a Hulk strike – yes, the same Hulk who recently represented Brazil at the World Cup – and ended with a lucky game-winner by a young Yuto Nagatomo.
Sadly, Verdy would only last a year before their (some would say inevitable) relegation; the next Tokyo Derby would be played in the J2 after FC Tokyo themselves were shockingly relegated in 2010. The two lifeless draws (0-0 and 1-1) in the following season lacked the intensity of past encounters, representing FC Tokyo’s impatience to return to the J1 as much as they did Verdy’s acclimation to the second tier.
While this ‘Milano Model’ has succeed in Osaka, where there is now a fierce (and very healthy) rivalry between Gamba and Cerezo, it was not sustainable in Tokyo; while FC Tokyo bounced back to the J1 within one season (becoming the first ‘J2’ side to win an Emperor’s Cup in the same year), Verdy are now six years removed from the top flight, and with little economic power and dwindling support seem closer to a fall into J3 than to a promotion to J1.
The Present: The London Model
Tokyo’s football landscape today might resemble that of Greater London, with several clubs dotting the map of the Kanto area: six of the J1’s 18 clubs are within an hour of central Tokyo, in addition to numerous J2 and J3 sides.
With a stretch of the imagination, one could view Urawa Reds and Omiya Ardija as a surrogate of Arsenal and Tottenham’s North London derby; FC Tokyo could be stand in for Chelsea, Kashiwa Reysol perhaps as West Ham United, and late comers Machida Zelvia and SC Sagamihara (both in J3) as versions of lower divisions’ Leyton Orient and Luton Town, etc. Verdy are, of course, Charlton Athletic.
The problem with this comparison is that London features at least two world-class level clubs (Chelsea and Arsenal) who regularly fill stadiums of 60,000 and 42,000 seats and compete at the highest level in Europe. At present, no team in Kanto is anywhere near this level, save perhaps for Urawa Reds and their league-high average attendance of 35,000-plus.
The heart of the matter is that Tokyo does not yet have a “Big Club.” No club based within the urban center known as the 23 Wards has won a J-League championship; Verdy’s titles came when they were based in Kawasaki. In fact, none of Tokyo’s clubs are based in central Tokyo; FC Tokyo’s clubhouse is in the western city of Kodaira, and the two clubs share Ajinomoto Stadium in nearby Chofu. With FC Tokyo’s average attendance topping out at around 25,000, the multi-purpose stadium regularly draws larger crowds for concerts and other events.
If Tokyo is to become not just a cultural capital, but a football capital of Asia, there is one alternative.
The Future? The Paris Model
Greater Tokyo is a megalopolis of 40 million people, home not only to locally-born residents but also arrivals from across Japan, Asia, and the rest of the globe, all of whom bring a variety of interests. The city boasts world-class cuisine, culture, and nightlife. In other words, a football club in Tokyo competes not only with other clubs and sports teams, but also countless other forms of entertainment.
A large European city experienced similar issues until a few years ago: Paris, the City of Lights.
Lost between art galleries and gourmet restaurants, Paris Saint-Germain were an overall average club with average players, little ambitions and a very limited following. That all changed in 2011, with the injection of petrodollars from Qatar.
By bringing top entertainers such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and many others to Paris, the new owners have been able to compete with the glamour of the theatres and the lure of the restaurants, making PSG a valid alternative when it comes to entertain demanding Parisians.
Nowadays, the Parc des Princes offers a show that lives up to the spectators’ ambitions, packed crowds of fans witness not only regular domestic titles, but also top-level competition in Europe.
New York City FC are now trying to clone this model with the acquisitions of David Villa and Frank Lampard and an amazing campaign to rally for new fans; this is what Tokyo should aim for as well.
What is needed at first is a top team filled with skilled players attractive both on and off the pitch. The squad must include popular stars from Europe and/or South America. Whether or not they are past their peak is irrelevant: their main role is to cater to Tokyo’s demand for world-class quality.
These should be names capable of not just contributing on the pitch, but also drawing fans to the stadium, selling merchandise, and generating an income. Raul, David Beckham, Pavel Nedved or Alessandro Del Piero could have been magnets for traditional and new supporters alike.
The other important point is to find a home ground that is easy to reach and within the city’s boundaries. This could be achieved if Tokyo’s main football club could play their games at the new Olympic stadium. A home in the heart of the city would expand the match day experience beyond 90 minutes on the pitch, enhanced by pre- and post-game entertainment such as shopping and dining which of course could also increase the club’s revenue.
Even if foreign investment is required, it should be as welcome in a global city such as Tokyo as it was in Paris, London and Rome.
While this is but one proposal for Tokyo’s challenges in the sport, the discussion of how football could be integrated in Tokyo’s life and culture must continue. There is no reason to think that down the road a Tokyo club should not be able to play at the level of a Paris Saint-Germain.
Since opening their doors to the West in the 19th century, Tokyo and Japan have rapidly caught up to – and in some ways surpassed – the rest of the world. There’s no reason not to believe that the same cannot be accomplished in football.