An accessible match day experience that gets you up close to the action, just on the outskirts of the capital. It’s time for a trip to watch FC Tokyo U23s
Date: Sunday, May 6th, 2018 Location: Nishigaoka, Tokyo Venue: Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka Match: FC Tokyo U23s versus Gainaire Tottori (J.League 3)
At first, I was sceptical. The sun was shining. It was the last day of my holiday. I could have taken a trip down to the Kanagawa seaside to watch Shonan Bellmare play Vegalta Sendai in J.League 1.
Or a trip out to Machida to see Zelvia host Yokohama FC in J2. Perhaps Sagamihara SC at home to Grulla Morioka in J3.
And maybe, just maybe, I could have done something that didn’t involve football.
Okay, let’s not get silly now.
But as I set off from home for the short journey into Tokyo, I still wasn’t sure. There was time to change course. Yet I’m glad I didn’t, as I was about to enjoy one of the best match-watching experiences in the capital.
The B Team
FC Tokyo U23s play in J.League 3 along with the fellow youth teams of Osaka pair Gamba and Cerezo. The other 14 members of the league are standalone clubs with ambitions of progressing through the divisions.
This kind of set-up is unfamiliar to me. I was vehemently against the plans to introduce Premier League B teams into the English Football League and have never understood the need to have reserve and youth teams playing in other European leagues.
But the J.League is still in its infancy compared to the aforementioned established championships. And with many teams still developing in the JFL and regional competitions, I can see the logic for having a couple of youth teams make up the numbers.
FC Tokyo U23s play their home games at Ajinomoto Nishigaoka Field. It’s a thoroughly unassuming journey to this unremarkable suburb of the capital. I join only a handful of other passengers getting off the train at Itabashi Station. It’s a short walk down almost deserted streets to Shin-Itabashi Station, where a short hop on the metro takes me to Motohasunuma Station.
A smattering of FC Tokyo blue on bags and shirts confirms that I’m in the right place. Back out on the street and the sun is still shining through the gaps between buildings, with some shade offered by the bright green leaves of summer trees. It’s a peaceful approach the stadium.
Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka is a facility run by the Japan Sports Council, and it’s a well-kept, neat-looking little place. Single tier, open-air stands with simple seating closely enclose the pitch. Wherever you decide to sit, you’ll be within earshot of the action.
Today’s game pits the hosts against Gainaire Tottori, a team from the west of Japan that made a flying start to the season before falling away. But their fans don’t seem concerned. Even before entering the stadium, I can see their flags and hear their chants. And, on a personal level, it’s always nice to see an army of fans decked out in green.
I buy my ticket on the gate and get my pick of the remaining vantage points amid the unreserved home section. The best spots have already been taken on this sunny Sunday, the last day of Golden Week. So I choose a seat near the halfway line, slap on the SPF50, readjust my cap and settle in for my first ever J.League 3 game.
Stars of the future
It’s full-on sweltering as the game kicks-off. People around me sip on cold beers and place wet towels on their necks.
On the pitch, the action is slow. Players move carefully, trying not to expend too much energy in the early stages. There isn’t much of note to report. The referee falls over. The woman in front of me laughs. The game ticks over until half-time. It’s goalless.
But there are sparks of interest. Tasuku Hiraoka is putting in a great shift up front for the hosts, while left full-back Kashifu Bangunagande is strong, fast and composed on the ball.
Junya Kato is showing off a nice first touch and holding up the ball brilliantly as the focal point of the Gainaire front line. And then there’s the Samba football from Tottori’s Brazilian trio. Leonardo and Fernandinho look dangerous up front, while Vitor Gabriel in particular shines from his midfield position.
A gentle breeze picks up during the second half, offering some light relief and bringing along a scattering of white, fluffy clouds.
On the pitch, a combination of brave defending, last-gasp goalkeeping and poor finishing ensures the game ends 0-0. The 2,364 fans in attendance politely applaud the players as they line up and bow in the centre circle.
An authentic experience
FC Tokyo U23s weren’t the only show in the capital today. Tokyo Verdy were also at home, in the cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu. With a capacity of nearly 50,000 and only 5,587 in attendance for the match against Zweigen Kanazawa (a 1-0 defeat for the hosts), I feel happy with my choice.
If you want to watch a higher level of football, by all means head over to watch Verdy or FC Tokyo. In most cases you’ll be able to find a seat with no problem. FC Tokyo are averaging 21,489 fans per home game this season, while Verdy are at 5,412.
But if you want to watch football where you’re right on the pitch, where you can hear every player shout, every groan from a disappointed fan, and where you can work on your tan with a beer in your hand, then head to Ajinomoto Nishigaoka Field. This is what football is all about.