Take two?

It’s not gained a popular reception, but would reverting to a two-stage J.League really be such a bad idea?


At the moment J1 is taking a mid-season break for the Confederations Cup so it seems like an apt time to offer my five-yen on the J.League’s rumoured preference of returning to a two-stage season from 2014.

The proposal – as with everything in football these days – has polarized opinion and produced fairly vociferous opposition.

My initial reaction was predominantly anti the idea too, as, having grown up watching one of the most traditional leagues in the world, the idea of a division not contested as one straight-through competition just seemed a bit odd.

The more I think about it the less of a bad idea it seems, though.

Those against reverting appear to have two main complaints: firstly they argue that the two-stage system doesn’t actually determine the best team, and secondly they suggest it demeans the league and detracts from its ambitions to compete with the more established divisions around the world.

Of the first accusation I would counter that no set-up produces an unquestionably just champion, and the margins can be just as fine in the current system as they would be with two stage-champions playing off in a final.

Did Manchester City really deserve to be crowned Premier League champions in 2012 when they needed that injury time strike by Sergio Aguero to settle things? On goal difference. Why is goal difference the way things are decided and not ball possession, number of passes completed, or most saves by a goalkeeper? I’m being facetious but hope you see my point; no system is perfect.

These Omiya Ardija fans could be celebrating a championship soon if this were a two-stage season...

Five of the eight single-stage seasons in Japan have also been decided on the final day of the season – never more finely than in the first year, 2005, when Gamba emerged victorious in dramatic style at the expense of Cerezo, finishing just a point ahead of their local rivals and three other clubs, Urawa, Kashima and JEF.

That is undoubtedly exciting, but were attendances and interest consistent throughout the season or just at the climax? In a two-stage version you’d have two final straights plus a grand finale to top it all off.

This, some say, is too ‘manufactured’, but that, too, is rather subjective. The most high-profile league I can think of which operates a two-stage season is that in Argentina, and for the many criticisms that can be made of fans of the Primera División lack of passion is not one of them. They take their league seriously, and winning the Inicial or Final – or, ultimately, emerging as the victor from the one-off match at the end of the season – is not considered inauthentic.

Even taking a break in the middle can’t be cited as a complaint as not one single-stage season has been completed uninterrupted. At least three weeks have been taken off each year to allow for something or other, disrupting the flow and, along with player transfers to Europe in the summer, often giving the illusion of two separate stages anyway.

Mitsuzawa Stadium is usually sparsely attended but they were queuing all the way to the road for last year's play-off semi-final...

Added to this, let’s be honest, the J.League is never going to compete with the likes of the Premier League or the Bundesliga when it comes to quality or appeal. The division has to maximize its potential and operate within its means.

The opinions of core supporters need to be acknowledged, of course, but for the continued success and development of the league the more casual fans can be just as important. Those who hark back to the good old days of the J.League when the hype was at its peak and attendances were consistently high often neglect to remember that large swathes of the supporters in the stands were fair-weather and needed regular excitement to keep them interested.

The money of those supporters is vital to the league and its clubs, and full(er) stadiums also look much better on TV and would likely make the J.League more interesting for international audiences – and sponsors – as well.

The J2 play-offs last year demonstrated how adding a bit of structured excitement can raise interest in a division in need of a bit of a pick-me-up, and a glance at J1’s dwindling attendances suggest that something similar may be required in the top flight as well.

Besides, if it doesn’t work out they can always change back again.

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Back Catalogue

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June 2013

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