As the 2011 J.League began I used my Weekly Soccer Magazine column to explain why there is nothing quite like the full domestic season.
Phew, the new season is finally here!
And 2011 begins with Japanese football very much on the up. The country have become the champions of Asia for a record fourth time, more and more players are getting their chances in the big European leagues, and there are some fantastic young players emerging in the J.League to take their places.
I know football doesn’t really ever stop and since the 2010 J.League season wound up we’ve had the High School Championships and the Asian Cup to keep us occupied, but you can’t beat the season proper can you?
These tournaments provided some fantastic moments of entertainment and gave us addicts the fix we needed to see us through until March 5th, but they are only bite-size versions of the real thing; they are like the Hollywood movie version of a really good book. All of the key events still happen and you enjoy it while it’s there, but there is never quite the same sense of anticipation or involvement. It all comes and goes too quickly.
With the full season every emotion is longer-lasting. You find yourself caught up in it and it begins to take over your whole week. The newspapers, websites and (of course!) magazines are checked daily for the latest updates on the injury to your star striker, the joy of victory stays with you until the next game and fills you with optimism and hope, while the frustration, anger and pain of defeat lingers and lingers.
The start of the season is unique too, because it is the only time that everybody is feeling optimistic. At the J.League’s Kick Off Conference, for instance, I spoke to players and coaches from eight different clubs – seven of them were talking about becoming champions of their respective leagues.
Before a ball has been kicked there is a clean slate, a fresh page and anything is possible. Regardless of the improbability of your side winning the league (or even staying in it), there is always that sense of what could be.
We all try to predict what will happen and are sure that these teams will be relegated, this guy will be top scorer and that so-and-so will be playing for Barcelona in a year’s time. But it is never that easy, there are always surprises and shocks that nobody could have foreseen, and this is why the game is the most popular in the world.
Consider, for example, the fates of FC Tokyo and Cerezo Osaka last year. No-one (and you are lying if you say you did) will have predicted that the Nabisco Cup champions of 2009 would be relegated to J2 or that the newly promoted side would play their way into the AFC Champions League. In fact, if it had been announced that one of those teams would finish third from top and one third from bottom it would have been unanimously decided that Cerezo would be heading back to where they had come from.
Indeed, this is why no good football movie has ever been made. Trying to replicate the natural drama, tension and surprises of the football season is an impossible task.
Even as you read this I am almost certain to be looking a little foolish, and my predictions from last week’s magazine will already have taken a knocking after the first round of matches (or I’ve got everything right and will be receiving a visit from the police shortly with regards to match-fixing).
Everybody’s heads are in the clouds at the moment, and it is a shame that the majority of them will be brought crashing back down to earth over the coming weeks and months.
Here too drama, twists and turns are available in spades though, and while the more ambitious aims may be shelved once a few knocks have been taken, there is still plenty of room for excitement.
Just consider the joy on display at Saitama Stadium on the last day of the 2010 season. Vissel Kobe would not have set out to stay up by one point, but each setback brings about a new set of targets – and achievement of them is just as enjoyable.
Only one team will win the league, but there will be lots of room for celebration in 2011 – that’s a prediction I am confident about.