In the moment

While it is undoubtedly positive that fans in Japan have been able to keep attending games, the restrictions in place mean the matchday experience is still lacking a certain je ne sais quoi… (日本語版)

I was very much looking forward to the Levain Cup final on 4 January, as it had been a long time since I’d seen a game live.

In fact, the last time I had been at the stadium for a match had been the Super Cup at the start of February last year, meaning I managed to bookend my 2020 campaign by watching the curtain raiser and season finale without witnessing any of the action in-between.

While it was good to catch up with some familiar faces and get a first look at the new National Stadium, however, I have to admit that there was a feeling of anticlimax at being back on the ground.

Over the previous 11 months I’d had to adjust to covering the J.League from afar, replacing regular trips to stadiums and training grounds with watching matches on DAZN and joining press conferences or carrying out interviews online or over the phone. In some ways this enabled me to gain a wider perspective on the football being played each matchday, with the comfort and ease of streaming meaning I could watch several games per day rather than being restricted to the one taking place at whichever stadium I had chosen to be at.

On the other hand though, this remote approach eliminated much of what makes live sport so enjoyable – that feeling of having been ‘at’ the game, of having seen events unfold before your own eyes in real time and, most importantly of all, having done so with others.

Shared experiences of all kinds have become limited (or, in many cases, made impossible) by the coronavirus outbreak, and there are concerns worldwide about the impact the lack of social interaction is having on mental health. Spending free time with friends and acquanitances is a vital way to relieve stress and escape the pressures and/or tedium of everyday life, and although the J.League should be commended for having worked so hard to ensure fans have been able to return to stadiums, the number restrictions and lengthy lists of dos and don’ts mean the situation is still a long way from normal.

While I often find myself becoming bored with the repetitive drone of the same old songs being sung by fans irrespective of what is happening on the pitch, for example, the sound of 25,000 FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol fans clapping in time made for a slightly eerie and underwhelming atmosphere. This was further highlighted by the spontaneous eruptions each time a goal was scored, with the spontaneous roars of the fans providing reminders of what watching football used to be like – before everyone remembered the situation and rules and returned to their COVID-19-safe style of muted applause.

Football is often lauded for its ability to provide a feeling of togetherness and offer opportunities to exist in the moment, with the sport providing an outlet when everything else seems too much. I won’t ever forget the extraordinary emotion in the stadium when Vegalta Sendai returned to action against Kawasaki Frontale after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, for instance, and while I’m sure many fans are still deriving pleasure from attending games even in this alternate reality, the constraints in place mean it is undeniably a watered down version of the real thing.

Indeed, the ongoing situation must be incredibly trying for supporters, with J.League clubs usually so effective at ensuring connections to the players via various forms of ‘fan service’ – all of which are now impossible. Coming from a country where players are kept way out of reach (I once contacted a Premier League club asking for a signed picture of a player as a birthday present for my girlfriend, only to receive a pre-printed team photo instead because the player was “too busy”) these efforts were one of the first things that truly impressed me about football in Japan, and the inability to maintain those strong bonds – in a physical, face-to-face sense, rather than an ambiguous marketing one – provides another challenge to clubs who are already feeling the financial strain of the pandemic.

The situation of course can’t be helped, and until vaccinations are widely available and it is absolutely safe to return to normality then measures will need to remain in place. Here’s hoping that 2021 develops into a more positive year than its predecessor though, and that we are all able to return to personal, authentic, lived experiences at stadiums around Japan – and across the globe – as soon as possible.

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January 2021

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