The J.League’s plans for a third tier next year may be good for the game. On the other hand, they may not…
The J.League’s announcement that it will be introducing the long-speculated J3 next year is both promising and concerning for the continued development of the Japanese game.
Bringing more clubs into the professional community and assisting them as they adjust to the change from amateur or semi-professional status looks, on the face of it, a positive thing.
Improving the overall structure and organization of the game to a deeper level should enable football to become more varied and widespread within Japan, hopefully enabling the sport to continue to grow and lay down roots in local communities nationwide.
While the expansion does offer many possibilities, however, I can’t help but be a little nervous about what J3 may entail.
Almost every weekend I take in at least one J2 match. While the majority of these take place in Kanto and the surrounding area, I also do my best to get out and about and see matches further afield.
These stadiums invariably provide a very different experience to those of the bigger J1 teams, sometimes in a positive way. I have written before, for instance, about the sense of community in the likes of Tottori and Oita that you really sense being expressed through the local football teams.
Matsumoto Yamaga is another club which undoubtedly serves as a fantastic example of what the J.League’s inclusion policy can produce. An incredible sense of local pride emanates from the fantastic Alwin, where Yasuharu Sorimachi’s side play their home games, with the traditional rivalry between Matsumoto and the neighbouring Nagano having laid the perfect foundations for this.
The average crowd this season has been just shy of the 10,000 mark, a more than respectable figure that several of the more established, ‘bigger’ clubs would love to achieve.
However, Matsumoto are in the minority in this respect, and several teams in the second division have neither the facilities nor fanbase to make any concerted progression up the ladder.
Here I am not only thinking of the smaller, rural clubs that are obliged to stage games at municipal athletics stadiums miles from anywhere at 7pm on a Sunday night, but also some of the fallen giants who must play host in cavernous, near-empty arenas devoid of any character or atmosphere.
Going to see Tokyo Verdy at the 50,000-capacity Ajinomoto Stadium, for instance, is a fairly soul-destroying experience. The tens-of-thousands of grey, empty seats do very little to create, well, anything at all, and the chants of the few hardy souls who have made the journey to support their teams echo around the stadium listlessly. The gloominess must surely be part of the reason why the club has been stagnating in the second-tier for so long.
I was recently in Chofu for Verdy’s game against FC Gifu – another side who represent the dangers of the J.League trying to expand too quickly.
Barely a year goes by without Gifu – or clubs of a similar stature – encountering financial difficulties and flirting precariously with extinction. Instead of spreading the net even wider and trying to create more professional clubs, would the league not perhaps be better served to focus on steadying the ground beneath the feet of its current members first?
The empty rhetoric of Japanese business-speak is also not always productive. Football clubs the world over strive for growth and improvement, but in relative terms. A club that’s just earned a place in League Two in England, for example, would not even be thinking about the European Champions League, let alone speaking about it. V-Varen Nagasaki president Noriyuki Miyata, however, had no qualms about citing participation in the ACL and Club World Cup as his long-term targets ahead of the club’s first ever J2 season. Ossie Ardiles was spouting similar wishes for Machida Zelvia last year – they are now back in the JFL after a solitary year propping up the second division. If fans expectations are unnecessarily built up then they will come crashing down that much harder.
As football grows in Japan the understanding of what ‘success’ means should also evolve. Not every club is going to be challenging for titles, and sometimes just providing fans with the opportunity to enjoy the highs and lows of supporting a team through thick-and-thin is enough.
Clubs – and the J.League as a whole – should not try to run before they can walk.