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The Gasmen are dead — long live the Gamers?

Monday’s long-telegraphed announcement that digital media giant Mixi will assume ownership of FC Tokyo through the creation of more than ¥1.1 billion in new shares signaled the start of a new era for a club that has only known life under founder Tokyo Gas.

The news also comes at the end of one of its most disheartening seasons in recent memory, with the team set for an underwhelming mid-table finish as they slip from last season’s sixth place and further yet from its runner-up campaign in 2019.

The year started on a high note. Tokyo captured the 2020 Levain Cup in a pandemic-delayed final on Jan. 6 against Kashiwa Reysol, and fans were upbeat that manager Kenta Hasegawa would be able to tune his solid squad even further, with a number of up-and-coming young defenders bringing stability at the back while the Brazilian “trident” of Diego Oliveira, Leandro and Adailton took care of business up front.

Suffice it to say, things didn’t really work out at either end. The team suffered a number of key injuries on the back line while the offense sputtered down the stretch, especially after temperamental Leandro was suspended for all of October following yet another incident in which he struck an opposing player in the face during play.

The September signing of Samurai Blue left back Yuto Nagatomo, who was expected to bring veteran leadership back to his former team after more than a decade in Europe, ultimately failed to inspire results, with Tokyo winning just two of eight league games since the 35-year-old’s return.

One of the five losses in that period — an 8-0 smashing at the hands of Yokohama F. Marinos on Nov. 6 — was enough to see Hasegawa head out the door with three rounds left in the campaign. That put interim manager and longtime goalkeeper coach Shinichi Morishita in the hot seat for the first time, where he oversaw a meek 2-0 defeat by relegation-threatened Tokushima Vortis on Saturday.

Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved, seen playing for Juventus in a 2005 friendly against FC Tokyo, is among a long list of European stars whose names have been linked with a move to the capital club. | REUTERS
Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved, seen playing for Juventus in a 2005 friendly against FC Tokyo, is among a long list of European stars whose names have been linked with a move to the capital club. | REUTERS

That left fans with little more to wait for beyond confirmation that Mixi would become the new majority owner — a welcome development for those who believe the club has stagnated under Tokyo Gas as its regional rivals have flourished.

Mixi, a club sponsor since 2018, has already made significant contributions to Tokyo’s performances off the pitch. A much-improved matchday experience helped the club achieve its highest-ever average attendance in 2019, drawing 31,540 per game to Ajinomoto Stadium despite a schedule that saw the team play eight away games in a row during the final stretch of the season due to the Rugby World Cup.

The company has already demonstrated its ability to respect the relationship between Tokyo fans and their club. An early collaboration between FC Tokyo and Monster Strike that involved giveaway rubber bracelets was quickly retooled after fans noticed some of them were green — the color of rival Tokyo Verdy.

Company President Koki Kimura even went as far as urging social media users to refrain from referring to the club as “Mixi Tokyo” — shorthand that had quickly emerged on Twitter following Monday’s announcement.

“Whatever position we’re in, FC Tokyo will always be the team of everyone in Tokyo,” Kimura wrote. “We will work in the background to support the team and help propel its reformation forward."

That reformation will involve significant investment in the team itself in order to catch up to the likes of F. Marinos and Tamagawa Classico rival Kawasaki Frontale. While FC Tokyo has repeatedly been connected to marquee European talent over the last 15 years — Pavel Nedved, Xavi, David Silva and Arjen Robben were all rumors strong enough to be printed — none have materialized.

The club’s tendency to allow its reputation to be built on such associations is a vice that has even touched the search for Hasegawa’s replacement.

For weeks, local media had suggested that the club has already brought on former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger as an adviser — a move that has yet to be formally announced. Earlier this month, several outlets reported that the club had approached Wenger’s protege, former Arsenal winger Freddie Ljungberg, who has spent the last five years as a coach at the London club and served as interim manager in 2019.

However, From the Spot understands that FC Tokyo’s next skipper will instead be Albert Puig, the former head coach at Barcelona’s La Masia academy who has had a productive two seasons with Albirex Niigata in the J. League’s second division.

Veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo's return to Tokyo has not brought improved results in the latter stage of the 2021 season. | KYODO
Veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo’s return to Tokyo has not brought improved results in the latter stage of the 2021 season. | KYODO

While Puig is by far a better choice than Ljungberg based on his experience and qualifications, the setting — and subsequent lowering — of expectations is a bad habit that FC Tokyo can nary afford to keep as wary fans await its recovery in the post-pandemic era.

Yet if there is a club owner that knows a thing or two about comebacks, it’s certainly Mixi. The company’s namesake, a social media platform limited to residents of Japan, was at one point estimated to have 15 million users — but saw those users siphoned away by Facebook and Twitter in the early 2010s.

Mixi has since rebuilt its brand in the gaming and sports worlds, developing mobile games such as the hit role-playing game Monster Strike under its XFLAG studio and operating news sites and social betting platforms revolving around horse racing, auto racing and keirin. It generated over ¥119 billion ($1.1 billion) in revenues in 2020, up slightly from the 2019 fiscal year.

The company has already made a foray into professional sports with its 2019 acquisition of basketball’s Chiba Jets Funabashi, who won last season’s B. League title and are scheduled to open a new 10,000-seat arena in 2024.

That progress has given Tokyo fans hope that their dream of a centrally located soccer stadium could potentially be in the cards again after years of speculation and little progress.

FC Tokyo has captured four major cup titles, including the 2009 J. League Cup — but a first-division title remains elusive. | KYODO
FC Tokyo has captured four major cup titles, including the 2009 J. League Cup — but a first-division title remains elusive. | KYODO

But in the absence of a move out of Ajinomoto Stadium, the new regime will be eager to recreate the inspiring atmospheres last seen in 2019. That will require the cooperation of fans behind the goal. That includes Tokyo 12, the team's main active support group, which has long maintained a cozy relationship with the club under Tokyo Gas and will be loathe to see its influence reduced.

While some die-hards who have been around since Tokyo’s days in the Japan Football League have expressed hesitancy toward the new ownership, most fans are greeting Mixi with open arms — indicating the potential for a generational change not only in the front office and the locker room, but in the stands as well.

Tokyo Gas deserves plenty of credit for establishing FC Tokyo's presence in the J. League, where it has spent all but two of its 23 seasons in the top flight, captured four major cups and made three visits to the Asian Champions League.

But to achieve greater heights and become a truly capital-level club in the style of Roma or Paris Saint-Germain, the organization’s scale and ambition require dramatic expansion — something that looks more than possible under Mixi’s leadership.

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