Teams the world over play each other twice a season; once each at home to ensure that neither gains an unfair advantage. In the J.League, things don’t always quite work out that way…
“Is kick-off definitely at 3?” I asked my friend as we arrived at Ajinomoto Stadium.
The gates were closed and aside from the three guys in futsal gear just ahead of us there weren’t many people around.
“Yeah, that’s over an hour away though,” he replied.
“The fans normally start arriving hours before,” I said, beginning to get concerned.
In hindsight, of course, we’d been pretty stupid to make it as far as the stadium without realising something was up. We hadn’t seen many people on the train or walk from the station, and had even commented that it was a shame Verdy had experienced such a fall from grace.
A quick check on my phone confirmed that support for the first giant of professional football in Japan hadn’t shrunk to single digits but that, instead, we were idiots and in the wrong place.
But were we? Shouldn’t football clubs play their home games at their home stadiums. Isn’t that kind of the point of “home” games?
For this match instead of hosting Ehime FC at Ajinomoto the game was taking place at Komazawa Stadium though; over an hour away.
Perhaps I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time I’d made such an error, and in 2009 I got as far as the firmly closed gates of NACK5 Stadium before realising that Omiya Ardija were instead playing Kawasaki Frontale at Saitama Stadium. However, having become more familiar with Japanese grounds since then I had gotten out of the habit of checking the venue of games.
As well as being a pain for people like myself with negligible planning skills, the nomadic way in which some Japanese clubs allocate their home fixtures also has other downsides.
Old Trafford. Camp Nou. Anfield. These stadiums conjure up images of the world’s most famous clubs, and form part of the very fabric of their identities.
The latter recently became a gathering point for Liverpool fans after the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report were released, and its Kop, and Shankly and Paisley Gates are iconic landmarks indelibly associated with the club.
Imagine arriving there and looking up at the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sign to find out that, actually, you just had. Today’s home game was being played across Stanley Park at Goodison Park. Impossible.
Omiya (them again) have done just that though, occasionally opting to play their home game against local rivals Urawa Reds at Urawa’s own Saitama Stadium.
The Shizuoka derby, too, was just this past weekend held at Ecopa Stadium, and while Jubilo were nominally the “home” side the fact that Shimizu also sometimes host games there meant any semblance of true home advantage was all but lost.
Much of the appeal of going to matches, especially derbies, is the spectacle of visiting the rivals’ stadium or “welcoming them” to yours, and that, too, is entirely absent when stadiums are shared so freely.
Of course, the decision is often made so more fans can fit in the stadium to ensure bigger profits for the club. When bearing in mind that prize money is allocated on final league position and only goes to the top seven teams sometimes even those sums may not quite add up though
Kashiwa Reysol, for instance, have this year played two home games away from their intimidating Hitachi Dai Stadium, instead using National Stadium. They lost both – to Nagoya Grampus and Urawa Reds – and Mihailo Petrovic paid reference to how the difference in atmosphere helped Reds earn their recent victory.
“Today was an away game but there were so many Reds fans here that it felt like a home game,” he commented.
It’s not a given that Reysol would have come out on top in Kashiwa, but for arguments’ sake let’s say those six points lost end up being the difference between 5th and 8th place. That’s a loss of tens of millions of yen.
It’s not an exact science – Reysol won their other game at National Stadium this year; as the away team against FC Tokyo – but creating your own fortress can certainly help tip the scales in your favour.
From now on I’ll be double-checking which stadium I’m heading to, but I really don’t think I should have to.