I wanted to write a season review and look ahead to the next one for my last Soccer Magazine column of 2010. The congested structure of the Japanese football season made this a little tricky though…
As I sat on the plane to England for my hard-earned Christmas holiday I began to write this week’s column. Seeing as the 2010 season has almost concluded and the New Year is fast approaching, a reflection on the past season and look forward to the next initially seemed like a good idea.
Then I stumbled upon a problem. Just when did the last season begin, when would it finish and when exactly would the new one begin? I began to go through my notes and searched for a period in the last year-and-a-half when there hadn’t been any Japanese football taking place.
It turned out there hadn’t been one, and there wasn’t going to be for some time to come.
To demonstrate the intensity of the schedule, put yourself into the shoes of Endo Yasuhito for a moment.
The 2009 J.League season started in March and officially came to an end with a 2-0 victory over JEF last December, but there was still the Emperor’s Cup which didn’t conclude until New Year’s Day 2010.
A couple of weeks after winning that he was training with the national team in preparation for the East Asian Championship and just 10 days after China secured victory at Kokuritsu he was back in action for Gamba, playing against Suwon in Korea in the ACL.
The 2010 J.League season was then underway, but, mercifully, after just 12 rounds of matches there was a break. Oh, not for Yatto, as this ‘break’ was for the World Cup and he was off to South Africa (via Switzerland and Austria).
After playing every minute for Okada san at the tournament there was still no time to put his feet up as J.League games were back on and his team needed him after a fairly miserable showing in the first part of the season.
He helped to turn things around for Nishino san, got his regular spot in the J.League Best Eleven and can finally look forward to…the Emperor’s Cup. Again?! Oh well, just three more matches at the most and then he can take some time off.
But wait! The Asian Cup!
OK, if he can just put it in in Qatar and then surely he can take it easy for a little while?
Oh no, hang on, then the 2011 ACL and J.League season will be getting underway, then there’s another ‘break’ – this time for the Copa America – the end of the J.League, probably the Emperor’s Cup (there’s always the Emperor’s Cup – if only he had Tulio’s timing when it came to injuries)…it never seems to end – and potentially won’t until January 2012, almost three years after this sequence began.
This, of course, is an extreme case but it demonstrates wonderfully the problems that the current fixture list makes possible for the best Japanese players.
Also, while only a small minority of players take part in this whole schedule, the J.League as a whole is not helped by all of these mini-breaks which disrupt the flow of the season and detract from the momentum of the title chase and relegation battle.
The only answer, in my opinion, has to be a shift to the European August – May season.
This would not interfere with Japan’s major bi-annual tournaments (the Asian Cup – interestingly, with the 2022 World Cup in mind – is only being held in January this time because of the intensity of Qatar’s summer) and commitments such as the East Asian Championship could always be used to provide University or fringe players with vital national team experience.
The Nabisco Cup could cease it’s group format and become a simple knockout competition – which would make it easier for it and the Emperor’s Cup to run within the regular season – and it would also mean that clubs could easier deal with the increasingly frequent loss of their best players to the European leagues, with their departures coming in the Japanese off-season, rather than in the very middle.
Bringing about such changes would surely provide J.League players with more recuperation time and, most importantly, give the league the chance to run consistently, from start to finish with no breaks – which can only be a good thing for all concerned.