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The Zico statue, one of the symbolic monuments at Kashima Stadium, would have surely been viewed by hundreds of visitors if the Tokyo Olympics had been carried out under normal circumstances.

But the organizers decided to host the majority of the competitions without spectators as Tokyo entered its fourth state of emergency on July 12. The stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture was no exception on Thursday evening.

So the statue of Zico, a former global superstar midfielder who played here for the Antlers from 1991 to 1994, was standing in solitude even as the first men’s soccer matches of the Tokyo Games got underway at the stadium.

Still, a large number of police officers, security personnel and volunteers were milling around, inside and outside of the stadium on Thursday ahead of the South Korea-New Zealand and Honduras-Romania matches.

Many of the volunteers appeared to have little to do.

“I don’t even know why I’m standing here,” a male volunteer, who is a student at a local university, told me with a bitter smile before the kickoff of the South Korea-New Zealand game. “I should’ve been a lot busier than this.”

Inside the stadium, Olympic signage was displayed all over. But at the end of the day, it was impossible to feel a sense of excitement with the stands mostly empty. Of course, the players were pushing themselves to perform at their best on the premier sporting stage. But when their actions on the field — good or bad — were met with no reactions, the excitement quickly dissipated.

Schoolchildren attend the New Zealand-South Korea match at Kashima Stadium on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Schoolchildren attend the New Zealand-South Korea match at Kashima Stadium on Thursday.
| AFP-JIJI

With all due respect to the teams, the games hardly looked like Olympic contests in the fanless stadium. It felt more like an exhibitions — as if the players were still tuning up for the big show.

Thankfully, for the contest between South Korea and New Zealand, the first game of the evening, there was some noise generated from the stands. Roughly 1,000 local elementary schoolchildren were exclusively invited to watch in person.

At first, considering safety as well as fairness to those who had purchased tickets, I felt unsure about whether it was a good idea to invite the children. But in fact it was refreshing to see them cheer on the players, clapping their hands and waving hand-made flags. And the difference was stark at the later match, after the children had already gone home.

The competitors could feel the difference too. Although they said their performances were not impacted by the reality of playing behind closed doors, they appreciated having some young supporters in the 40,000 capacity stadium.

Chris Wood of New Zealand celebrates after scoring a goal against South Korea at Kashima Stadium in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Thursday. | REUTERS
Chris Wood of New Zealand celebrates after scoring a goal against South Korea at Kashima Stadium in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Thursday. | REUTERS

New Zealand forward Chris Wood, who plays for Burnley of the English Premier League, said he personally was not caught off guard by competing in the environment because he played without fans for all of the last season. However, he said playing in a fanless stadium at the Olympic stage was “a little different.”

“But it was nice to see the kids here today. It was fantastic to have something at least. It was perfect,” said Wood, who scored the game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory over South Korea. “That’s an empty stadium. It’s not the same, but it’s nice to have a bit of lift from the kids.”

The 29-year-old also reflected on the different experience at the 2012 London Game.

“I was lucky enough to be there in London,” the Auckland native said. “Full crowds, good environment in the village and things like that. Now getting away from it, it’s a different Olympics. But it’s still in the Olympics. You got that buzz, you got that tournament feel and that’s what you want to keep a hold of.”

Wood’s teammate Joe Bell, a midfielder, shared the assessment that the atmosphere didn’t affect the team’s performance.

“Luckily, I think our group has a special culture and a special bond with the players,” Bell said, when asked if he felt like he was playing in the Olympics. “So being able to hear and get support and positive comments while you’re playing actually can maybe enhance the performance. But yes, it is definitely different from previous Olympics. But that’s not a situation that we can control. So we don’t try to focus on it.”

The Zico statue outside Kashima Stadium | KAZ NAGATSUKA
The Zico statue outside Kashima Stadium | KAZ NAGATSUKA

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