Japanese media have called it “the road of death.”
After Dec. 7, it may be remembered as the path to glory.
If FC Tokyo are to win the J. League’s first division, they will do so having survived one of the most grueling campaigns in league history.
Kenta Hasegawa’s men are about to embark on an unprecedented run of eight straight away games from Aug. 24 to mid-November, during which their home, Ajinomoto Stadium, will serve as one of the main venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“All we can do is play tenaciously,” Hasegawa said Saturday night after his team’s 0-1 defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima. “We realize that playing away is difficult and it’s a different atmosphere. I don’t know (how it will turn out), we have to see how it goes.”
The club agreed to an unbalanced schedule, which saw it host 15 of the season’s 17 home games through last weekend’s Round 23, to aid in the landmark first-ever Rugby World Cup hosted in Asia.
Ajinomoto’s status as a World Cup venue brought additional logistical challenges — Tokyo was unable to use the stadium for weekday or night games until mid-June as the stadium’s floodlights were upgraded to LEDs and an impressive wraparound ad display was installed.
In somewhat of a quid pro quo, Tokyo was allowed to use Japanese rugby’s hallowed Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground to host two Levain Cup home games, marking the first time the stadium had hosted soccer since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
As 17-year-old phenom Takefusa Kubo set the J1 on fire, Tokyo’s promotional team set out to draw as many fans as possible to Ajinomoto with an aggressive marketing campaign and renewed efforts on the social media front.
With an average home attendance of 30,782 fans per game thus far— a number that would shatter the club’s previous record if maintained through the team’s last two home games in November — it’s fair to declare those efforts a success.
“I’d never say that our attendance is up because of Kubo or our team’s performances,” FC Tokyo marketing supervisor Wataru Kawasaki told Number earlier this month. “If Kubo would bring 100 fans to the stadium, it’s our job to make that number 150 or 200.”
In addition to Kubo’s masterful performances in midfield, neutral fans were drawn to the offerings at Aoaka (“Blue and Red”) Park, the fan plaza established on the east side of Ajinomoto.
With food stalls, children’s games, talk events and concert performances, Aoaka Park successfully replicated the festival atmosphere that has long been a fixture at Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds home games.
Improvements to the fan experience have come quickly, aided by club sponsor Mixi. The Japanese IT giant has lent its expertise in social media and mobile gaming to FC Tokyo, offering both flashy content and avenues to rapidly respond to fan feedback.
“We only have 17 home games per year which means just 17 chances to improve,” Kawasaki told Number. “We’re focused on making sure that those chances aren’t wasted.”
The next chance for Kawasaki and his team will come on Nov. 23, when Tokyo hosts Shonan Bellmare. Before then comes the “road of death” and some of the league’s trickiest opponents and most boisterous atmospheres.
Three of the eight — Matsumoto Yamaga, Sagan Tosu and Jubilo Iwata — are deep in the relegation battle and will be playing with their backs to the wall.
The Sept. 14 game against Kashima Antlers at Kashima Stadium, a historically difficult venue for Tokyo, could have an outsized impact on the title race with just four points separating the two teams. Bigger leads have been squandered in the past, as recently as last season when Sanfrecce Hiroshima let an 13-point lead slip to finish behind Frontale.
Defender Daiki Niwa, who was a part of Gamba Osaka’s domestic treble-winning squad in 2014, says the team needs to “play like leaders” in order to finish the season on top of the table.
“If you look ahead it seems difficult, so it’s important that we stay focused on the match in front of us,” Niwa said. “We still have a lot of games ahead of us and anything could happen. We have to play as challengers and stay humble, and if we keep doing that I think we’ll be on top at the end of the year.”
Should the team endure, it would bring to fruition the dream that began in 1998, when Tokyo Gas FC was reborn as FC Tokyo and was named as one of the second division’s 10 founding clubs and the first from the capital.
Tokyo’s long-suffering fans have watched as other clubs in the region — Antlers, Reds, Frontale, Yokohama F. Marinos and Kashiwa Reysol — have lifted the trophy.
If Hasegawa’s squad holds out over the next 11 rounds, it may finally be Tokyo’s turn.