It’s common now that when my wife makes a travel suggestion, the first thing I do is check the nearby football fixtures. For her recent birthday, she’d suggested Tokyo and during the dates she’d put forward there was an Asian Champions League game in Yokohama. It was the first day of our trip and, while I knew it would cost me later in the week, the chance to see some football at a World Cup Final venue was not to be turned down.
Now known as Nissan Stadium, the 2002 final venue is home to Yokohama F. Marinos (The ‘F’ comes from Yokohama Flügels who merged with Yokohama Marinos in 1999). The Nissan-owned club are among the J-League’s best-supported and more successful clubs. On the night, they were facing Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Kathryn had already accompanied me once before to see Jeonbuk in their home stadium and had even bought a club scarf (because she was cold). She still wasn’t thrilled, but I was determined to harness my inner-Korean and get down there to support the boys in green (Jeonbuk were also likely to feature several players from my team, Incheon United, having signed five of our players in just over a year). On our budget flight to Tokyo, there were several other Jeonbuk fans, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone.
Tokyo’s Narita airport is a long way outside the city. We took the moderately expensive option of the Narita Express, which had us in the city less than an hour later. Before departing, there was just enough time to get some corner shop sandwiches for lunch and we were on our way. On the train-ride in, Kathryn decided she’d come to the game with me. We checked into our hotel and they told us the best way to Yokohama was via Shimbashi. That meant a short subway ride, a short queue for train tickets , and finally we were heading way south to Japan’s second largest city.
This was our second visit to Yokohama. The first journey had only taken about 15 minutes by bullet train as we made good use of the last day of our J-Rail passes. The primary reason for that trip was to visit the city’s Hard Rock Cafe (it’s a weird thing we do), but also included a visit to the Landmark Tower and the Nissan Stadium. On that day, the stadium, which hosted the 2002 World Cup Final, was closed up and there was nothing to do but walk around.
This time it was different. About one hour and two changes of train later, we eventually arrived at Shin-Yokohama Station. The guys from the plane were at the station and there were large numbers of blue Yokohama shirts on show, too. Near the station, we loaded up on some very nice noodles (we like the places where you can order at vending machines with pictures to avoid our lack of Japanese skills) and began the short walk to the stadium.
Nissan Stadium is gigantic. It holds 72,000+ people, but from the outside it looks like it could hold even more. Even though there was still more than an hour to kick-off, the walkway to the ground was already fairly busy. We bought a couple of 2,900¥ tickets- about £17, and at the cheaper end of admission prices- and wandered around the club shop.
Inside, we walked the concourse, where you can find a decent variety of food and drink, and also paid homage to the 2002 World Cup. The squad of each team that played at the stadium was adorned on separate pillars. Ireland, who beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 in Yokohama, were there, their squad list missing Roy Keane’s #6. As well as a pillar, Japan had a large wall poster to celebrate their first ever World Cup win when Junichi Inamoto scored the only goal against Russia. Finally, of course, there were Germany and Brazil, who met in the final.
We picked up some fairly expensive beers- ¥600!- and took a couple of seats in the unreserved section. Inside, the stadium looks even bigger, accentuated by its running track. With still almost an hour to go, Kathryn was worried she’d “be three beers in before kick-off.” However, she found suitable amusement trying to identify the variety of languages found in the many Marinos’ banners. She also particularly enjoyed how the Japanese team’s big-screen introduction was set to German metal (Rammstein’s Du Hast) and how each player’s name was greeted with a Spanish “Ole!” and accompanying arm gesture.
In the north stand, below the banners and the ‘Oles,’ was a large group of Yokohama fans. Very large. The section was almost entirely blue and they were in excellent voice from beginning to end. Post-Rammstein they showed some nice flag choreography as the players entered and the club’s hymn played out.
Kick-off was finally upon us (and we were, in fact, just one beer in) and it was the small band of Jeonbuk fans, now numbering between 20 and 30, who were first given something to cheer. One of Jeonbuk ex-Incheon contingent- Han Gyowon- prodded Kaio’s header goalwards. The Yokohama keeper palmed it out, but Han was there to tap in the rebound.
The Yokohama captain is former Celtic player Shunsuke Nakamura and I spent much of the first half watching him. As expected, he delivered some quality set pieces and had Yokohama’s best effort of a mostly uneventful first half, powerfully curling a 20-yard effort that Jeonbuk’s Kwon did well to hold.
One of the great things about Japanese football is the young men and women who walk around the stadium selling beer to the seated spectators. We opted for one of the girls selling draft beer from a barrel in her backpack- at an extra 100¥- for the first top-up, before returning to the concourse for half-time beers.
Yokohama began the second-half with an extra forward- Fujita- but it had little impact as the first fifteen minutes carried on in the same slow manner that the first half had ended. Jeonbuk made an attacking change of their own with aging K-League record scorer (and one-time Middlesborough flop) Lee Dongkuk replacing the Brazilian Kaio. Within moments though, Yokohama were level. From a throw-in on the left, Saito launched a hopeful ball into the box which looped over the Jeonbuk keeper and in. Perhaps it was the glance over his shoulder before he struck the ball, or maybe it was the added effect of the ball going in off the crossbar that had me thinking he had meant it. However, his muted celebrations suggested he had not. A minute later, it was 2-1. Kim Keehee, an Olympic bronze medal winner with Korea, failed to deal with a hopeful through ball and Saito was onto it in a flash to put his team ahead.
There were more beer top-ups and Kathryn found some very dry churros among the stadium vendors. Jeonbuk created some half-chances, but nothing overly threatening. Yokohama defended well and looked to counter-attack, but didn’t create any chances of note. Nakamura showed some lovely touches, but was often guilty of losing the ball. The Yokohama fans continued to sing and, considering F. Marinos is not a name that easily slips off the tongue, managed to fit the name to a variety of different tunes.
And then, it was all over. Yokohama had won and with Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande going down 2-0 in Melbourne, all four teams head into an exciting final round of games on seven points. Jeonbuk had given an excellent away performance, but only two quick unintentional actions had stopped them sealing their progress to the next round on the night. The players rightly showed their appreciation to the traveling support and disappeared below the stadium.
At the other end, the Yokohama fans joyously spun their tricolour umbrellas as they waited for their triumphant players. In our section, we speculated whether the businessman who had put his blue Marinos shirt over his work shirt at half-time and was now taking it off again and stashing it in his briefcase was heading home to tell his unknowing wife about the long day he’d had at the office. We followed him out of the stadium and were soon on the subway heading back to central Tokyo.
Soon, I will be leaving Asia for the foreseeable future. I’ve been very lucky to make a few trips to Japan in the last couple of years and I’ll miss the chance to watch more football there. The fan culture here appears excellent and from my experiences there is a great atmosphere in the grounds. I’ll also miss the Asian Champions League. Again, I’ve been lucky to see teams from across this vast continent in the past couple of years, and this is a wonderful competition that is growing in size and quality.
HIGHS: Amazing stadium; great, loud fans who created a good atmosphere; good beers sold at your seat
LOWS: Two quality teams, but the game lacked a little excitement; Japanese football costs so much more than the Korean football that I’m used to; the dry churros.