Taiki Hirato’s thunderous shot from outside the penalty box buried itself into the upper-right corner of the net, and for a moment it was as though the last four months had never taken place and all was normal in Japanese sport.
But the Machida Zelvia striker’s third-minute goal against Tokyo Verdy was celebrated only by some shouts on the pitch and some scattered applause from the sideline, and Hirato himself refrained from hugging his joyous manager Ranko Popovic as he exchanged forearm bumps with his teammates.
"I didn’t have any special thoughts in mind, I just celebrated naturally," said Hirato, who is in his fourth season with Machida. "I wanted to shoot if I had a chance on goal, I saw a path for the ball and I took the shot."
The J. League’s new normal played out for the first time in Tokyo on Saturday as the second-division J2 League resumed following its coronavirus-imposed hiatus, with Zelvia seeing two points slip from its grasp after a late Kanya Fujimoto penalty helped Verdy salvage a 1-1 draw behind closed doors at Ajinomoto Stadium in the western Tokyo city of Chofu.
“Personally and as a team, we haven’t been able to play for a long time, and I was very happy to be back on the pitch,” Fujimoto said. “I think everyone felt the same way.”
The “Tokyo Classic” was the first J. League fixture held in Tokyo since late November, when title-chasing FC Tokyo played its home finale in front of a sold-out crowd at the 48,955-capacity venue.
The differences between that game and this one could not have been more stark.
In line with 70 pages of league guidelines intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, only essential personnel were allowed inside the venue that last fall hosted raucous crowds at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. That included just 25 writers, 16 photographers and a handful of television news crews and broadcast staff. Those entering the stadium had their temperature checked; all except the players and coaches wore masks and ballpersons wore gloves.
“It was a unique match and I was worried about a lot of things including the players’ motivation, but they responded well and they were able to hear my instructions,” Verdy manager Hideki Nagai said. “But the J. League is supported by fans and supporters, and being able to have them in the stadium would be best for the players.”
With fans locked out of J. League stadiums until July 10, the home side attempted to liven up the visual atmosphere by covering seats in the back stand with green bags to create a “Verdy” display. Messages from fans were played on the giant in-stadium displays before kickoff, and supporter chants were periodically piped through the sound system during play.
“It’d be a lie to say it didn’t have an effect to play without supporters, but it’s great that we can play under these conditions,” Popovic said. “We have to play remote matches for the time being, it won’t be very long before fans can come support us and I hope they will be patient.”
Zelvia wasn’t able to capitalize on its advantage and spend most of the remaining 86 minutes fending off pressure from Verdy’s pass-heavy attack. Shouts in Serbian from Popovic, who took charge of Zelvia in 2011 before managing FC Tokyo from 2012-13 and Cerezo Osaka in 2014, were among the pitchside sounds that echoed in the empty venue.
“(Hirato’s) goal was exactly how we had trained, but other than that we weren’t able to attack as well as I’d hoped,” Popovic said. “Our players might have thought there was no way they could top such a beautiful goal and may have been satisfied with that.
“We still have a lot of inexperienced players and players who aren’t at 100 percent. We have to grow from this. But over 90 minutes we didn’t give our opponents any big chances and that was very good.”
Halftime substitute Fujimoto, making his first appearance since injuring his right ACL in an Aug. 11 game against Kagoshima United, got his chance from the spot when Zelvia’s Leo Takae took down Verdy striker Ryoya Yamashita in the box.
“It took a lot of time for him to recover from his injury, and we’ve been careful about bringing him back in,” Nagai said of the 20-year-old, who cooly slotted his penalty past Zelvia goalkeeper Yota Akimoto. “He fully understands how we’re trying to play and is a player who should be a core part of the squad.”
Elsewhere in the J2, Ehime FC came back from a three-goal deficit for a 4-3 win over Tokushima Vortis, last year’s J1 Playoff finalist. Ventforet Kofu and Albirex Niigata battled to a 3-3 draw, while Zweigen Kanazawa and Matsumoto Yamaga finished scoreless.
Earlier in the day, the third-division J3 opened its delayed season, with Blaublitz Akita’s 4-0 romp at Iwate Grulla and Azul Claro Numazu’s 2-1 victory over Fujieda MYFC among the seven results.