After a year, the wait is over.
A bit more than three months before the start of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, starting on 23 July 2021, the Ariake Arena was finally "baptized" by volleyball on Saturday (1 May) with a male-female double-header between Japan and China, and it didn’t disappoint.
The Chinese women showed the class of reigning Olympic champions, defeating Japan 3-0 in the night cap at the Tokyo 2020 volleyball venue. In the matinee, the Japanese men came from behind to outlast their Chinese counterparts 3-2 in a matinee that went almost three hours.
First game since 2019
For both countries, the matches were their first internationals since autumn 2019, when they competed at the FIVB World Cup in Japan. Japan’s women’s team unanimously tipped their hats to China, saying there is a reason they are the world’s No. 1 team.
In the final set, China fended off several set points from Japan to set up the match at 30-29 - and capitalised. In winning the first two sets 25-16 and 25-18, coach Ping Lang’s side got 21 points from their ace and captain Zhu Ting as Japan never had an answer.
“Without question they are the best team in the world”, Japan captain Araki Erika said during the post-match press conference. “We learned a lot about ourselves today and our work is cut out”.
Top marks for Ariake Arena
The arena, the Tokyo 2020 venue for volleyball and wheelchair basketball, was supposed to break maiden with a four-way international tournament in April last year. But with the one-year postponement of the Olympic Games due to the coronavirus, the curtains would stay drawn on Ariake.
Saturday’s contest was held under the cloud of a state of emergency in Tokyo, without fans, and the two Asian rivals were grateful the games went ahead as planned.
“This was our first match in a while and we expected to be a little rusty”, said Ping, whose team arrived a week ago and now will do two weeks’ quarantine when they return home.“We are very grateful to the Japan Volleyball Association for making this match happen. Ariake Arena is a beautiful arena and I would love to see it full at the capacity of 15,000.
“Our group at the Olympics is a very difficult one and we have to work for everything all over again. The U.S. and European teams have improved over the last few years at a fast rate but we are looking forward to the Games”.
Drilling the lessons
Japan coach Nakada Kumi, whose players have been in camp since 1 March, added: “We are fortunate to even be playing given the current grave situation. It’s been difficult to keep the team motivated. Being honest, we weren’t sure of this until the day China arrived. We were worried.
“But amid all the uncertainty, the good thing about facing the world’s No. 1 team is that you find out right away where you are in the pecking order. So from tomorrow, we go back to work and start drilling the lessons we learned today”.
Nishida Yuji paces Japanese men
Nishida Yuji led all scorers with 27 points in the men’s game as Japan clawed their way back after dropping the first set 21-25. China, who are not one of the 12 qualified teams for Tokyo 2020 and rebuilding toward Paris 2024, more than held their own and traded sets with Japan until the fifth set.
Japan, ranked ninth in the world and coming off their best finish at a World Cup in 28 years (fourth), took the tie-break 15-8 as coach Nakagaichi Yuichi’s side produced Ariake Arena’s first-ever victory.
Takahashi Ran, making his national-team debut, chipped in with 16 points.
Liu Libin and Dai Qinyao had 17 and 16 points, respectively, to lead the Chinese.
“This was our first game in 18 months. The tension was a little different than it normally would be and I think it showed early on”, Nakagaichi said. We’re in the process of building our team for the Olympics so it’s good to get a win. The more games we get under our belt the better we will be in detail”.
The volleyball tournament will take place at the Ariake Arena between 24 July and 8 August 2021.