The end of the season is always a time of contradictions and conflicting emotions. The indifference afforded to games not involving your team begins to dissipate, and you find yourself paying just as much attention to events elsewhere as you do to those closer to home. One week you barely acknowledge another team’s result, the next you need them to win and do you a favor. Gradually each reshuffle of the pack throws up less and less movement and soon the table is crudely split into three divisions: those that can win, those that can’t, and those that can lose.
This year, as is the wont of the J.League, the race for the title ran right to the final day. Kashima Antler’s eventually tied up their third successive championship with a 1-0 victory over Urawa Reds in Saitama – with perennial runners-up Kawasaki Frontale falling just short again, despite their 3-2 victory over Kashiwa Reysol.
By this point, the battle to stay in the top-flight had already been fought – and lost – though. Sadly, three heavy casualties have been taken down, each of whom’s presence will be sorely missed in J1 next season.
Oita Trinita were rooted to the bottom of the table for 25 weeks of the season and, while many may not consider their relegation much of a loss, a closer inspection of the activity on the pitch suggests otherwise. Although the team did lose a catastrophic fourteen league games in a row between the end of March and mid-July, they closed the season with a tremendous ten-game unbeaten run, playing some of the most positive and committed football on display in the league. When Ranko Popović took over from Péricles Chamusca in July, he immediately encouraged his players to start expressing themselves and play without fear. This freedom soon paid dividends and it is a real shame that such a gifted team – which won the Nabisco Cup and finished fourth in the league in 2008 – will most likely be decimated in the close season.
Off the field too, the club has a spectacular community feel and an average home attendance of 18,000 fans was maintained throughout their disastrous losing streak. They will be missed – as will Mizohata Hiroshi, the club’s charismatic President who announced his resignation last month to take responsibility for the debt which nearly sent the club into bankruptcy.
Kashiwa Reysol and, in particular, their supporters will similarly leave the first division a slightly less vibrant place next season. The energy and aggression that resounds around Hitachi Stadium on match-days is unmatched in Japan, and while visiting players trod in fear whenever taking a corner or daring to challenge the goalkeeper at the home end – with the rabid ‘Yellow Monkeys’ fans rejoicing in the lack of the all-too-common-these-days running track – it is a shame that the players could not turn their patch into more of a fortress.
After picking up just 3 wins from their first 18 league games, Kashiwa also experienced a change of manager mid-season and, although the team’s form picked up after Brazilian Nelsinho arrived (albeit not as dramatically as Oita’s), the damage had already been done.
It is Kashiwa’s Chiba neighbors, JEF United – one of only six teams to have been in the top tier since the start of the J.League in 1993 – who arguably represent the biggest loss though. Under the stewardship of Ivica Osim they were never far from the top of the table and the completion of Fukuda Denshi Arena in 2005 bestowed upon the club one of the best stadiums in the country – providing the closest thing to a ‘European’ football venue in Japan.
Unfortunately, the fans have not been treated to much success in their new stadium, and since Osim’s departure to the Japanese national team in 2006, JEF have been on a slippery slope. Repeated changes of manager and mass offloading of players to balance the books have finally taken their toll – none more so than the most recent casualty, former Liverpool coach Alex Miller. Like their fellow relegatees JEF opted for a managerial switch mid-season, yet, while Oita and Kashiwa’s form improved as a result, JEF’s did not. Their recent victory over FC Tokyo was Atsuhiko Ejiri’s first league triumph in thirteen attempts and came one week after demotion to J2 was already confirmed.
While these established teams have experienced a fall from grace though, the positives should not be ignored and the J.League should take heart from the growing competitiveness across its two divisions. In the ten years since movement between J1 and J2 was made possible, twenty three teams have been promoted to the top-flight, with just four of these returning to whence they came the following season. Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Montedio Yamagata, the promoted clubs from last season, are no exception and were two of the top-flight’s sterling performers in 2009.
Sanfrecce are still in with a shout of making next season’s ACL (if Gamba Osaka are victorious in the Emperor’s Cup), and were even in contention for the championship until the final stages of the season – when their incessantly-attacking style of play finally took its toll.
The ‘Mountain Gods’ of Yamagata, meanwhile, acclimatized well in their first season at the peak of Japanese football, particularly when the chips were down in a series of relegation 6-pointers in late September through October.
The money involved in professional sport these days means that relegation can have increasingly dire and far-reaching consequences – with Oita providing the perfect case in point. While it is rarely nice to see a team experience the drop though (with there, of course, being a few exceptions), it is always refreshing to also see some new faces dining at the top table.