Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nabisco Cup Final - F.C. Tokyo 2 Kawasaki Frontale 0 - November 3, 2009


Today was Culture Day in Japan and you're supposed to celebrate by doing something cultural or artistic. Well, the J League is certainly a cultural experience in Japan, so I headed off to National Stadium to see if I could find a ticket to the Nabisco Cup Final game between F.C. Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale.

Outside the Stadium

The Nabisco Cup

Most soccer leagues have a cup competition to supplement the regular season games. In Japan, this is known as the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, after the main sponsor. Unlike most league cups, which are simple knockout competitions and often involve teams from lesser leagues (such as the Carling Cup in England, which features teams from the Premier League down to League Two), the Nabisco Cup only invites the 18 J1 teams and begins with a group stage, where teams play a round robin against each team in their group. This leads to many more games being played and subsequently more revenue for everyone involved. It also gives those teams who are out of the league chase a chance at some other silverware.

This season, the 4 teams who played in the AFC Champions League were excluded from the group stage. The remaining 14 teams were then divided into two groups of 7 and played a 6-game tournament with the top two teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals, where they were joined by the Champions League teams. These 8 then played home-and-away legs in a knockout format to reach the winner-take-all final at Tokyo's National Stadium.

National Stadium

Located in the Meiji Shrine's Outer Garden, the National Stadium is one of a number of sports facilities in the area, along with the two Jingu ballparks and the Chichibunomiya rugby stadium. This Google Maps satellite photo shows you all 4 venues.

The National Stadium was the main stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and is now over 50 years old. It's held up quite well over the years and is surprisingly quite modern despite its age. I didn't spend much time walking around today due to the crowds, but will revisit there on Saturday for the AFC Champions League Final and have more info.

I can say that the stadium is a multi-purpose facility and therefore has the track surrounding the soccer pitch. This leaves you at a distance from the action and is the biggest drawback here. The stadium is not symmetrical when it comes to seating. On the main side, which is partially covered, there are only about 40 rows divided into two levels, while on the uncovered back side there are 65 rows in 3 levels. The total capacity is 48,000 seats.

I entered by the backstand gate and found the concourse to be very wide and not crowded despite the sell-out. This is quite different from older stadiums elsewhere, where fan comfort seemed to be an afterthought. My seat was conveniently located in that I didn't have to go up or down a level - from the entrance I just walked over to section 21 and just stepped two rows down from there to reach it. It was in the middle of the row, so I didn't move for the rest of the game, so I can't give any reports on food or other amenities.

The Ticket

The game was sold out just an hour after tickets went on sale back in September, no doubt a result of having two Tokyo-area teams facing off. I didn't have a ticket; in fact I wasn't even planning on going to the game once I found out it was sold out. But when I woke up and saw the weather was perfect, I decided it was worth the short trip to see if I could snag an extra ticket.

There was a decent crowd out front but it seemed everyone was waiting for a friend. I asked one guys who was standing around holding a ticket if he was selling, but he just shook his head.

It was still an hour till kickoff, so I wasn't particularly worried. Eventually I overheard one guy telling another to walk around shouting "I got a ticket". The guy was too shy to do that, but I knew that he was hoping to sell, so I casually approached him. He definitely wasn't a scalper, just a guy with a couple of extra ducats, so I offered him face value for one. He asked if I was a Tokyo supporter, which is a critical consideration when buying tickets to soccer games. Each ticket is either in a home team or away team cheering section. There are no general sections for fans who just like the sport. So although I suppose I'm a very weak Frontale fan, I wasn't going to let such a minor quibble ruin my chance at a ticket. I told him that I was not cheering for either team, just looking to watch the game and that was enough for him - I took his ticket, he took my money and in I went.

I didn't care where the seat was when I bought it, but it turned out to be a good location - facing the top of the penalty box midway up the back stand. I was in the middle of F.C. Tokyo supporters, but I wasn't wearing any Frontale colours, so it didn't matter. The sun was out and shining brightly, so I sat back and waited for the festivities to begin.

The Fans

Both supporter sections were completely full and already raucous. Although I was among Tokyo fans, they were not part of the "official" cheering section, which was in the end seats. In the picture below, you can see them with balloons, a great visual effect. I expected them to let them go as the fans do in baseball games here, but it didn't happen.


The fans here were very vocal, booing the Kawasaki introduction video and then cheering loudly when their players were introduced. Toilet paper seems to be the decoration of choice and was being throw wildly about in the minutes before the game, but it disappeared once the game started.

The Frontale fans were somewhat quieter I thought, although this might be because I was further away. The only interesting thing I noticed was a cool looking star formation before the game, shown below.


The Game

Kawasaki currently leads the J League while F.C. Tokyo lies 5th, only 6 points back. So both teams are strong, although Tokyo has had some injuries of late and were considered the underdogs.

Kawasaki had the better chances in the first half. In the 12th minute, a long-range kick was barely tipped over the bar by Tokyo keeper Shuichi Gonda. Then in the 20th minute, Juninho was gifted the ball with a gaping net, but managed to send it high.

Japanese national team member Kengo Nakamura with the ball

As is so often the case, the team on the defensive counterattacks quickly and finds a bit of luck. In this case, F.C. Tokyo moved the ball up slowly when 18-year-old Takuji Yonemoto ran to the left side. He passed ahead to striker Sota Hirayama who quickly passed back. Space opened up in front of him, so Yonemoto decided to try his luck from outside the box. He sent a curling, diving ball that Frontale keeper Eiji Kawashima dove for. Kawashima got his hands on the ball and deflected it - into the net! An unbelievable strike for Yonemoto and for the F.C. Tokyo fans, who were not expecting such a great goal. When they realized the ball was in, there was a half-second of stunned silence as they confirmed the ball was actually in the net before they erupted in cheers. It was 1-0 Tokyo with 22 minutes gone in the game.

Nakamura's kick is blocked

The rest of the half was fairly quiet, although both teams had more chances, neither keeper was tested seriously. At the start of the second half, Kawasaki continued their assault, and time and again they had decent opportunities but were left wanting for lack of finish. And again, Tokyo put a counterattack to good use. This time, the ball was being headed back and forth in the Tokyo end when Hirayama finally headed it out of danger. The ball was then quickly played ahead to Tatsuya Suzuki who ran down the left side. Hirayama meanwhile raced down the right side, catching up to Suzuki. As they entered the box, Suzuki crossed to Hirayama who headed it past a sprawling Kawashima. A beautiful play all-around and Tokyo had their insurance goal with 30 minutes to go. Here's a great video of the goal, watch Hirayama running from when he heads the ball at the 1:05 mark - great anticipation and pace.

Tokyo celebrate their second goal

Immediately, Tokyo took off forward Shingo Akamine and replaced him with defender Yuto Nagatomo. It was clear that their intention was to defend the lead and for the rest of the game, the play was almost entirely in the Tokyo end. This sucked for me as the sun was directly above the Tokyo net the whole time, forcing me to squint for the last 30 minutes. It also sucked for Frontale, who kept up a constant pressure, but the Tokyo defense did not break. Juninho hit a crossbar and Gonda made a fine save on another shot, and when the whistle sounded, it was a 2-0 victory for Tokyo.

A rare Tokyo attack

Kawasaki outshot Tokyo 17-10 and had 12 corner kicks, most coming in a frenzy in the last 20 minutes. But it was their inability to take advantage of their chances plus their poor defense against the counterattack that cost them the game. Full credit to F.C. Tokyo though, who played a great game and deserved the championship. Yonemoto was the MVP and looks to be someone worth watching in the future.

The Goodies

As the tournament is sponsored by Nabisco, all the fans received a small pack of goodies. Inside was a booklet describing the history of the Nabisco Cup as well as how each team reached the final. Even better, though, were 3 bags of Nabisco's new 100-calorie snack packs. They've taken old favourites and slimmed them down so that they're more appealing to health-conscious consumers. Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies, and Chips Ahoy are all featured; I think they chose those 3 packs as they match the colours of the teams playing today. F.C. Tokyo is a red and blue, while Kawasaki is a light blue and white. The picture below shows the snack packs, the booklet, and the ticket, which is pretty cool.


Thoughts

I've often thought that Japanese soccer is doomed by the players inability to finish. Time and again they create chances only to see a muffed kick or an extra pass go astray. This is certainly noticeable in international play and it was certainly Kawasaki's problem today as they failed again to win the Nabisco Cup (they lost in 2000 and 2007). I also found an interesting article on the topic, which summarizes the situation quite well.

Despite Kawasaki losing, I really enjoyed this game. Perfect weather, lots of chances, a sold out stadium with vocal supporters, and two excellent goals. Not a much better way to spend Culture Day!

Next Up

I'm back to National Stadium this Saturday evening for the ACL Champions League final between Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and Pohang Steelers from South Korea. The next day I'll revisit Todoroki to see Kawasaki host JEF United Chiba in a regular J League match.

And that's probably it for a while. With baseball nearly over and just a month left in the soccer season; I'm afraid the next two months will be devoid of much sports watching. But stay tuned, there's a big trip in January planned and I'll be posting details here shortly.

Best,

Sean


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