In my opinion, the Nabisco is very much a cup half empty…
The Japanese word for snacks, okashi, is strikingly similar to the word for strange, okashii. With that in mind it is particularly fitting that the J.League Cup – a pretty bizarre competition – is sponsored by the confectionary company Nabisco.
This year’s final was contested by two teams who have been having far from their best seasons – as indeed it invariably is.
The three previous showpieces – which admittedly are great occasions and generate a terrific atmosphere – have seen Jubilo Iwata, FC Tokyo and Oita Trinita emerge triumphant.
None of those sides were seriously challenging on any other fronts at the time, and for the latter two the tournament actually appeared to be something of a curse as they suffered relegation to J2 in the season following their victories.
While the teams that are in with a chance of winning the league or even the Emperor’s Cup – which carries the huge, and fitting, bonus of an ACL spot – focus on frying their bigger fish, the also-rans are left to fight over the crumbs.
Kashima Antlers will have been delighted to get one over their old rivals and pick up yet another trophy at Reds’ expense, but they would surely rather have been battling it out for the league title or to become the Kings of Asia.
Indeed, this was the first time that Oswaldo Oliveira had won the Nabisco Cup – the only domestic trophy he hadn’t collected in his time at the club – and while he will no doubt be happy to have collected the full set, he must also be feeling a little disheartened that Antlers are now having to settle for the smaller trinkets.
He even hinted at as much after the final, telling reporters in the press conference that, “because we are no longer in a realistic position to win the league we had a responsibility to win a title and so perhaps I focused on this competition a little more than I usually would.”
It could be argued that Reds deserved to win the championship more than Antlers, though.
Yes, they were largely outplayed in the final and the game was effectively ended as a spectacle with the over-enthusiastic refereeing of Mr. Tojo (Naoki’s first caution was a little harsh – although he, admittedly, knew he had received it and was stupid to fly in for the second tackle – while Aoki’s second yellow card was truly bizarre), but they had worked three times as hard as their opponents to get to the final.
Kashima had played just two matches prior to the clash at Kokuritsu, while Urawa contested six – all of which they won.
Teams with commitments in continental competition usually have their workload lightened, and this year the difference was more extreme because of the rearranged schedule after the earthquake but such a large disparity is very odd.
There has been talk of including J2 in the tournament from next season and I personally think that would be a great idea and could really inject some life into the competition.
Many factors – sponsors’ interests and club’s budgets chief among them – need to be taken into account but as a simple suggestion, my version of the League Cup would look something like this.
Eight groups of four teams, four consisting of three from J2 and one from J1, four with two from each division. Each team would play three matches and the winner of each group plus the best two runners up would progress to the next round.
Here they would be joined by the previous season’s top four from J1 and the reigning Emperor’s Cup and Nabisco Cup champions. (If the cup winners also finished in the top four then 5th and 6th from J1 would take their byes. If a J2 team won either or both cups then only 18 or 19 second division sides would be in the group stage with 14 or 13 from J1).
From that point on it would be a simple one-legged knockout competition from an unseeded draw.
The J.League is keen to expand and improve the credibility of its second division, and this format would certainly provide J2 sides with more exposure, as well as opportunities to test themselves against stronger opponents.
There would, admittedly, still be a slight discrepancy in the number of games teams play, but it would make for a slightly more even playing field, and the tournament could truly be considered as the “J.League Cup” – a tournament worth winning.