On hearing I would be moving to Yokohama, Japan, of course, the first thing I did was check out my new local club – Yokohama F. Marinos. This is a team that can boast three major top flight league titles, they play at the 70,000 seater, Nissan Stadium, (the stage for the 2002 World Cup final) and are based in the largest urban area in the world. So I was thrown when I had no idea who they were.
Coinciding with the relative infancy of the ‘soccer league’ in Japan, the Marinos are young in footballing terms having formed (as the Nissan Motors FC) in 1972. Despite its youth, the club has seen its fair share of upheaval, having changed their name on three separate occasions and most notably merged with inner city rivals Yokohama Flügels in 1998. The merger was met with disdain by the Flügel faithful and acted as a catalyst for the creation of Yokohama’s second team – FC Yokohama in 1999. A team plying their trade in Japan’s second tier.
Since the formation of the professional J-League in 1992, the Marinos have progressed to be one of the more successful teams winning three major titles as well as the J Cup. Yet, with the off-field position of the club, this could be only the beginning. As one would expect, the club is owned, by a majority of 80% by the Nissan Motor group. The remaining 20% is held by the City Football Group, the holding company of Manchester City, to whom have expressed interest in further investment for a greater, majority share. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, there has been no signs of significant investment in the J League, yet the potential coupled with such a catalyst, could see the Marinos leading the way in creating a greater global identity of football here in Japan.
The J-League itself, despite its relative anonymity on the global stage is considered to be the most successful in Asia boasting a top class A ranking. The league has yet to be drowned by money and this is evident with the fairly modest prize pot, for winning the league. Yet, having co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, the country has an impressive infrastructure in place, 14 different clubs have homes in stadiums with capacity’s of over 40,000.
Having visited the Nissan Stadium to watch the Marinos on a couple of occasions, the matchday experience is something of an odd blend of Japanese culture and European football. As you walk up the slight incline to the rather impressive Nissan Stadium you are almost immediately greeted by a giant Pikachu. Almost too fitting. Yet once inside, there’s a comparably German feel. There is an array of giant flags, both home and away.
There is beer service direct to your seat, constant chanting and even side to side bouncing, which is spectacular viewing. It was a far cry from what I had become accustomed too in this well natured, polite and conservative society. Yet these very traits weren’t missing, with an almost nonexistent police and even steward presence, a general lack of hostility and fans even taking their rubbish with them made the experience all the more unique.
European football has a big influence in Japan, and this is noted by the colours of the big European teams more frequent than that of the nation’s own. Soccer in Japan is huge, perhaps less well received than baseball, but nonetheless, huge. The Marinos can comfortably expect crowds of 40,000 for the bigger games despite the lower standard of football. Professional football in Japan is a modern concept, but one that has all the makings to one day have more draw on the world stage. The team are led by talisman, former Celtic and Japanese legend Shunsuke Nakamura, however this doesn’t alter the fact that the quality is modest at best. The current fortunes of the Marinos is steady. Having settled into a mid table team over the last couple of seasons. Their record this season has improved since the split. But having previously been completely outplayed earlier in the season by league leaders Kawasaki Frontale, one would expect nothing more than mediocrity for a third successive season.