Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Central Coast Mariners 1 at Kawasaki Frontale 2 - AFC Champions League - (ACL Champions League, Pool D, Match Day 4) - April 20, 2009


I've been back in Tokyo for over a week now and haven't seen a live sports event in that time, suffering significant withdrawal symptoms, which included trying to watch a tape-delayed game between the Red Sox and Orioles. Fortunately, the drought changed today when I headed to Kawasaki (located in Kanagawa, the prefecture directly south of Tokyo) to watch an AFC Champions League match.

The ACL (not to be confused with the anterior cruciate ligament that causes so many injuries) has been around in its current form for 8 years now, although this year there are 32 teams invited for the first time. The premise is similar to UEFA's Champions League - get the best clubs from each country to play each other in a round robin tournament followed by a playoff to determine the best team on the continent. The winner travels to the FIFA Club World Cup, which until last year was held in Japan, but will be held in Abu Dhabi the next two years.

I've been remiss in following the ACL, mainly because I wasn't even aware of its existence until a couple of years ago. But with the last two Asian champions hailing from the J League, the event is getting more publicity here. And I'd rather see an international match than an ordinary J League battle. So when I noticed an upcoming game featured an Australian team visiting Kawasaki, I decided that would be a good introduction to the AFC Champions League.

Getting Tickets

In Japan, you can get tickets for most any event at your local convenience store (conbini in Japanese). Each game has a special code that you can find on-line first, then you go to the conbini and enter the code into the ticket machine. You can then select the seats you want, number of tickets, etc. You are given a receipt which you bring to the cashier, who prints your tickets and takes your money. I picked up a home side ticket for 2200 yen (about $22 these days) which allows you to sit most anywhere. I wasn't expecting a large crowd as the Frontale website indicated plenty of seats available, so I figured I could snag a decent spot if I got there early enough.

Train and Rain

Unlike baseball, soccer is played in the rain. Tuesday turned out to be a dreary day, but I was not to be deterred. There was a light drizzle as I entered the Hibiya line subway around 4:30 and headed south, alighting after 40 minutes at Shin-Maruko station. As I exited the station, I noticed the rain had picked up considerably. It's about a 15-minute walk to get to Todoroki Athletic Stadium, through narrow, neighborhood streets, with no signs that there is an athletic complex nearby. It was only by following a Kawasaki supporter that I knew I was going in the right direction. When I turned a final corner, I was suddenly confronted with the stadium lights brilliantly reflecting off the raindrops. It was a beautiful sight, despite the stadium itself being rather pedestrian in its appearance.

I tried to enter via gate 10, but was told that my ticket could not enter that gate before 6 pm, and I would have to walk around the stadium to gate 5. Which I dutifully did. It is only in Japan that these silly rules are enforced, and I can't figure out the reason. Once in the stadium, the only available seats under cover were over by gate 10, so I just walked around the inside back to where I had been 5 minutes earlier. Despite the small crowd, many of the seats were in the rain, so most of the good seats were taken. Luckily though, I found a seat near the front of a section facing one of the goals. It looked like it had slightly rained there earlier, likely from the breeze blowing in, and this had dissuaded the local fans from risking a seat there. I figured that nobody would sit in front of me, and I was right - had a great view and the rain never came close.

The Stadium

Like so many venues in Japan, Todoroki is relatively unimaginative when compared to similar spots in North America. The seating area is divided into 2 sections; one has a roof covering most of the seats, while the other is in the open. The seats themselves are hard plastic, and most of them don't have a back. This isn't much of an issue as soccer games are pretty short. As with many soccer stadiums here, there is a track around the pitch so you can't sit as close to the action as you'd like. Still the stadium is small enough that there really isn't a bad seat in the place.

Concourses are wide and you can wander around to take pictures from a variety of locations. There are plenty of interesting food options. I picked up a stick of kushi katsu, which is deep-fried pork with onion. For $2.50, it's a lot better than your typical hot dog. There's also a stand selling locally-produced products, including one of my favourite deserts, warabi-mochi. In fact, the best thing about this stadium was the wide selection of different foods that are not available in overseas stadiums. And they are reasonably priced as well, about the same as you'd pay in a restaurant. The picture to the left here shows a few types of ramen, deep fried pork, curry rice, and pork with curry. All for about the same price as a hot dog in your typical MLB ballpark, and must tastier too!

The fans were not plentiful, the crowd of 8, 419 coming in at about a third of capacity. But those who were there were dressed in the team colours, and the supporters section (pictured here before the game), reserved for those who belong to the official cheering group, was filled and jumping up and down all game. There was also a small contingent of Mariners' supporters, known as the Marinators, who were occasionally heard to question a referee's decision with the oft-heard phrase that rhymes with pull chit. Not sure the Japanese fans understood them though.

The Teams

Kawasaki Frontale were promoted from the second-tier J2 league 5 years ago and finished 2nd in the J League in 2008, thus making the grade for the ACL in 2009. I've occasionally followed their results since their promotion, as they were the closest team to where I lived, but I had never seen a game before tonight. They are off to a slow start in the J League this year, but were leading Group H of the ACL and had a chance to clinch a spot in the next round with a victory tonight and a loss by Chinese team Tianjin Teda.

The Central Coast Mariners were formed in 2004 for the inaugural season of the A League, Australia's professional soccer league. I don't know much about them, but they finished top of table in 2007-08 which enabled them to enter the ACL in 2009. What's interesting is that they have already completed their 2008-09 season in which they finished 4th, so the current team is probably not as good as the previous one and this is showing in their results in the ACL. They lie third in the table and a loss to Kawasaki would severely damage their hopes of advancing.


I did a bit of research before I went, hoping to find some info that might make the game more interesting. Here's an article on Australian national Matt Simon, who started the game and played well, scoring the only goal for Central Coast.

The first half was rather mundane, with the best chance going to Kawasaki just before the halftime whistle, when Vitor Junior missed an easy header in front of the gaping net.


Frontale must have used that miss as motivation as they scored a goal about 30 seconds after the restart, when Mariner keeper Daniel Vukovic didn't handle a shot from Chong Tese and Juninho pounced on the rebound. The lead was short-lived as Simon equalized on a good through ball from Andrew Clark about 15 minutes later. The Mariners seemed revitalized by their goal and pressed a few times, but could not get another. A draw seemed imminent but Kawasaki gained a corner in the 80th minute and Renatinho headed in a Taniguchi cross for the 2-1 victory.

There was a lot of feisty play and a few yellow cards were shown to both sides. It's possible the Mariners were still upset after being beaten by Frontale 5-0 two weeks ago in Australia, but I was surprised at some of the pushing and shoving that went on. Nothing like a hockey game mind you, but certainly these teams didn't seem to like each other.



The other game in the pool ended in a draw, so Frontale clinched their spot in the round of 16 with the win. I'll keep following them as they progress against tougher opposition and update you here.

Thoughts

It amazes me that a continent as wide as Asia can hold this event and I wonder if it is financially successful. Flying these guys 9 hours for one game just baffles me. Considering how American sports teams often complain about their travel schedules, I doubt their unions would allow for such long flights for such a short time. Of course, soccer has always had ridiculous travel for international stars, who will play in Europe on a weekend, then jet home to Brazil or Argentina for a couple of World Cup games before returning to their club the following week.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the stadium, the fans were energetic and the game itself was quite interesting. The constant rain did make for a difficult pitch and there was a lot of slipping and falling on the part of the players, but I felt that the wet weather added to the overall impression of the evening. I'll try to get back here for a game during the playoff round and let you know how that goes.

I'm off to Korea tomorrow for a street hockey tournament that I am actually playing in, but I'll be checking out a KBO ball game as well on Friday night, and will have a report on that next week.

Best,

Sean


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