The J.League’s “20th Anniversary Match” was a fitting way to mark a special occasion, but it also drew attention to aspects that still need to improve…
A great deal has been achieved in the first 20 years of the J.League, and the official “20th Anniversary Match” highlighted so much of what is great about the Japanese game.
As chance would have it – or not, depending on how much faith you have in the ‘randomness’ of the fixture computer – the latest clash between Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers fell conveniently on the weekend when the 20th Anniversary celebrations were in full swing and was thus selected as the showpiece game.
And why wouldn’t the J.League choose that encounter? Urawa’s phenomenal success off the pitch has seen them generate the biggest aggregate attendance since things swung into action in 1993, and they have come the closest yet of any Japanese team to establishing themselves as a genuine big club. Head outside of Japan and ask your average football fan if they can name a J.League side and the chances are Reds will be one of the most widely known, despite their relative lack of success on the pitch.
Kashima Antlers, meanwhile, may not have established themselves quite so firmly in the consciousness of supporters around the globe but they, too, have a fixed identity – something that is sadly true of too few clubs in Japan. And, most importantly of all, they are winners. Seven league titles, five Nabisco Cups and four Emperor’s Cups are not to be sniffed at.
What better way to show how far the league has come in its opening two decades than a fiery encounter between these two sworn enemies, then. And in a packed Saitama Stadium to boot.
And thankfully the match more than lived up to its billing.
There is genuine animosity between the two sides – a member of staff from one club confided as much before kick-off – and no fan of either team wanted to miss the latest installment, with over 46,000 packing out the stadium despite the rain and fact that the game was being shown live on TV. It speaks volumes, in fact, that in some quarters that figure is being spoken of as ‘only’ 46,000, Attendances are an issue that the league and its clubs need to keep a close eye on, but that figure was more than every Premier League fixture on the same weekend, except for Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever game in charge at Old Trafford.
Then of course there was the action on the pitch, which like all good games, was aggressive, frenetic, and controversial.
Shinzo Koroki’s decisive goal was quite blatantly offside. Of that there can’t be any debate, and it is beyond doubt that the referee and his assistant made a glaring error.
“Today was the 20th Anniversary match and both teams did well but it is a shame that while the level of players has improved in the last 20 years the level of officiating hasn’t at all,” Antlers coach Toninho Cerezo witheringly declared after the match. “Everyone here and those watching at home could see the goal was offside but the referee and linesman failed to spot it. It seems like the home crowd made the decision for them.”
His frustration was understandable, but I have to say I think his claims about the level of the officials are wide of the mark. I have said it before and I’ll say it again but until video assistance is mandatory mistakes will happen and referees and their assistants will get things wrong. That is not unique to Japan and not a week goes by without a controversial decision making headlines in one of the world’s top leagues or international competitions.
The lack of discussion about the incident, though, is concerning. Again, this is not the first time I’ve spoken about this issue, but the refusal of any TV station to just come out and say, “he got that wrong” is baffling to me.
In so many ways the J.League has matured and developed since things kicked off on May 15th, 1993, but the media covering it is still far too controlled. It, too, needs to grow up – and the J.League must allow and encourage that process if the next 20 years are to be anywhere near as fruitful as the last.