The new National Stadium is open for business, having survived a December opening gala featuring J-pop icons Arashi and the 2019 Emperor’s Cup final with a number of online grumbles but few out-and-out disasters.
But is that enough to earn the $1.4 billion centerpiece of the 2020 Tokyo Games a passing mark as a soccer venue?
Just over two months after it was originally scheduled to host the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the controversial venue made its “competitive” debut on New Year’s Day when it hosted the Emperor’s Cup climax between Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers.
The match, designated a Tokyo 2020 test event, was the first official chance for Olympic organizers — and this writer — to evaluate the venue’s ability to manage a sold-out crowd as well as enable world-class athletes to compete at their peak.
Viewers didn’t quite get to see the latter — with both goals in Vissel’s 2-0 win coming off dreadful Antlers defensive errors — but potential issues in the stands and the concourses were of greater interest to observers trying to ascertain the stadium’s readiness for the big show.
Among the more common complaints on social media were the narrow spacing between rows in the higher tiers as well as the length of the rows themselves, with fans in the middle of 25-seat rows potentially unable to escape once they’ve sat down.
Closer to the pitch, Kashima’s supporters seemed to get the raw end of the deal, with their section in the lower bowl split in two by one of the marathon gates and a temporary stand — to be used by media filming athletics events — creating a number of obstructed-view seats.
Even the main stand felt like it needed a bit more time in the oven — the press box was a temporary arrangement, while representatives from the country’s prefectural football associations sat on folding chairs nearby.
Other issues emerged in the concourse, which in some sections had nearly half its space blocked off from pedestrian traffic.
While the new stadium had plenty of interesting-looking food offerings, any stalls offering more than the standard fried stadium fare under heat lamps attracted long lines that spilled past the rope barriers.
Meanwhile, attendees tweeted photos of narrow stairwells and tunnels to the upper stands that would give anyone with claustrophobia — or officials tasked with organizing an earthquake-related evacuation — considerable pause.
Later, the halftime rush for the bathroom resulted in queues — particularly for the men’s toilets — stretching into the main walkway, although the number (and quality) of facilities was a significant improvement over the old ground.
That’s not to say it was all bad. The three packed tiers of stands did give the day a Colosseum-like sense of wonder, with fans in the upper levels praising the sightlines. The much-vaunted wooden roof did look classy — even if the setting January sun cast some very frustrating shadows on the pitch.
The free wireless internet worked smoothly throughout the day, while the media center — nestled deep in the bowels of the stadium, with an entrance far removed from any of the nearby public transit exits — appears spacious enough to be able to handle the hundreds of journalists who will be covering the 2020 Games.
But the biggest elephant in the room remains the gigantic track surrounding the pitch — so big that it could, in fact, fit an entire herd of elephants. Its fate after the Paralympics remains unclear, but the most recent reports have administrators walking back initial plans to cover the track with more seats.
A repeat of the agonizing mating ritual between West Ham and London’s Olympic Stadium, which took years to resolve after the 2012 Games and left just about every party involved feeling like they had lost, seems unlikely.
That’s because it’s doubtful that any of the teams in the Kanto area will consider making the National Stadium their new home.
Kashima’s purchase last summer by online auction giant Mercari came with reports that the club had rejected a much higher bid — one which came with the condition that the club would relocate to Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the two capital clubs — FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy — are gradually hitching their wagons to the Scramble Stadium project, which is attempting to build a soccer-specific arena into one of the hills of Yoyogi Park.
Even the Japan Football Association appears to have ceded that the National Stadium will not carry the historical significance of its namesake. While it has been allotted the opening game in Japan’s 2023 Women’s World Cup bid, the final for that tournament would be played at Saitama Stadium — a venue that even at 19 years old is arguably still Japan’s finest.
From the rejection of deceased architect Zaha Hadid’s original design to the lack of a designated space for the Olympic flame, the National Stadium has become a venue that, while perfectly competent, is somehow less than the sum of its parts. For concerts, cup finals, and the occasional national team game, it will be a sight to see.
It’s just a shame that for the rest of the year, it will be a monument to compromise and lowered expectations.
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