After the usually incredulous “Why?” the thing I get asked most often about groundhopping is “What’s the best place you’ve ever been to, then?” It’s an almost impossible question to answer (How do you begin to quantify the experiences and emotions bound up with visits to football grounds? Is the Nou Camp better because it’s the Nou Camp? Does the Daejeon World Cup Stadium rate any higher because of the atmosphere on the night South Korea beat Italy?), but I can say without any doubt that the best looking stadium I’ve ever seen is the Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture, Japan.
Completed in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of Toyota City, home, unsurprisingly, of the Toyota Motor Corp, the Toyota Stadium was among Japan’s original list of fifteen candidate cities for the 2002 World Cup but failed to make the final cut of ten due to political machinations that, as academics Wolfram Manzenreiter and John Horne noted, may or may not have included Toyota’s rivalry with Nissan Motors and the willingness of Nagoya’s residents to publically oppose wasteful public spending projects.
With a stadium design by the world renowned Kisho Kurokawa – the architect behind the new wing at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the international airports in Astana and Kuala Lumpur, The Big Eye World Cup Stadium in Oita and Zenit St Petersburg's long-awaited new ground (a close copy, incidentally, of his Toyota design) – the city government pressed on regardless, scaling back the maximum possible capacity by a quarter to 45,000 but otherwise sticking to Kurokawa’s original vision. And what a vision it is: bordered by the Yanagi River, rice paddy fields and pear farms, the stadium has a retractable fabric roof that folds back in on itself like a Japanese paper fan, a scoreboard which can be moved fifty metres up or down and slid anywhere between the goal and the halfway line, a 38-degree gradient to the stands and four masts holding up the permanent roofs, providing unimpeded views of the pitch from every single one of the 43,000 regular seats, an indoor swimming pool and exterior lighting that changes colour to coordinate with the neighbouring Toyota Bridge. “One of the most beautiful stadiums in the world,” ex-Nagoya, Roda and PSV manager Sef Vergoossen said. He wasn’t wrong:
Crossing Toyota Bridge.
The scoreboard and retractable roof.
The teams come out.
The away end
Now jointly used by Nagoya Grampus (who divide their home games with the much older Mizuho Athletics Stadium back in Nagoya) and rugby union team Toyota Verblitz, the stadium has also hosted three Japan internationals, four FIFA Club World Cups and will be one of the venues for the Rugby World Cup in 2019. It’s a fifty-minute train ride from central Nagoya to Toyotashi on the Tsuramai Subway and Meitetsu Toyota Lines, then a quarter of an hour walk over several pedestrian crossings and the skeletal Toyota Bridge. Twinned with Derby and Detroit and home to 1,345 industrial plants, Toyota’s a “city of radiant people with environmental consciousness and dynamic growth” according to its website, but the most exciting thing you’re likely to see between the station and the ground is the side-by-side presence of a McDonald’s and a Lotteria burger franchise. A much better choice is the Coco Curry Ichiban concession in the car park outside the east stand. “Good smell, good curry” as it says on the side of the van.
The Coco Ichiban van (in yellow)
With four games to play defending champions Nagoya are third in the league, two points adrift of Gamba Osaka and three behind surprise package Kashiwa Reysol. “Have a Confidence” urges a banner behind the home goal, though Cerezo Osaka take an early lead on grammatical accuracy: “Osaka City Football Club” and “Real Osaka Ultras 1994” their flags proclaim, in pointed digs at their city rivals Gamba.
The sides line up in matching 4-5-1s but it’s Cerezo, with Fabio Lopes and the highly-rated Japan international Hirotsugu Kiyotake (rumoured to be off to Stuttgart at the season’s end) buzzing around off Rui Komatsu, who settle first, narrowly missing Seigo Narazaki’s left-hand post with the opening attack of the afternoon. Nagoya are comparatively sluggish lack up front but respond to the threat by pushing their back four forward, squeezing the space in midfield and rendering Lopes and Kiyotake virtually anonymous for the remainder of the game. Takahiro Masukawa heads wide from a Kennedy cross and Yoshizumi Ogawa has a tame effort gathered by Kim Jin-Hyeon in the away goal as Grampus begin to find their range. On twenty-four minutes Cerezo unwisely concede a free kick and Jungo Fujimoto bends a left-footed effort that soars over the wall and inches wide of Kim’s slow motion dive. Komatsu equalises from the penalty spot after a clumsy trip by Musukawa, but the parity lasts just six minutes before Ogawa swings in a free-kick from the left and Joshua Kennedy brushes past a defender to head in a training ground goal, his seventeenth of the season. “Forza Grampus! Ole! Ole! Ole!” sing the Nagoya fans to the tune of Yellow Submarine. “We knew set pieces were a strong point of Nagoya’s game,” Cerezo’s Brazilian coach Levir Culpi complains afterwards.
Fujimoto over the wall?
With Nagoya now happy to sit on their lead, Cerezo are given more possession in the second half but are rarely able to threaten, managing just five shots all game. With fourteen minutes left Kim palms a volleyed shot back into a crowded area and young substitute forward Kensuke Nagai turns the rebound past a defender on the line. It’s a performance that owes more to Stoke City than Arsenal, but with 270 minutes of the season left and already relegated Montedio Yamagata the Toyota’s final visitors Dragan Stojkovic’s side are still in with a shout of their second title in a row.
Date: November 3rd 2011
Admission: 2,200 yen.