Archive for March, 2020


The game giving back

With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc around the world, football is increasingly being tasked with giving back to the communities which enable it to thrive… (日本語版)

Football Channel 25th March, 2020

Football clubs and leagues around the world often appear to take their fans for granted.

Whether as a result of steadily increasing ticket prices, schedules arranged to suit broadcasters rather than match-going supporters, or the seemingly never-ending cycle of new shirts available at grossly-inflated prices, there is a growing sense that fans are seen as customers rather than a vital pillar upon which teams are built.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has brought that imbalance sharply into focus though, shining a spotlight onto the fact that the relationship between the game and society should not be structured in a provider-consumer manner, but instead as a symbiotic association in which football is required to give back just as much as it takes.

With no matches happening, people warned to practice ‘social distancing’ and stay home as much as possible, and the uncertain nature of the spread of the virus meaning restart dates and conditions remain unclear, fans across the globe are without their weekly fix of live football and clubs are without the people who enable them to thrive.

In such unusual times, the sport has been forced to reassess its function in society, with clubs capitalising upon their prominent roles in their communities to convey positive messages and provide assistance.

In Japan, for instance, this has largely come by way of social media activity, with players performing public service duties by posting videos of themselves demonstrating the correct way to wash your hands or coaches aiding parents struggling with school closures by introducing mini-drills that can be practiced at home.

In England, where clubs are obviously operating in a different financial stratosphere, football has also been tasked with giving rather than taking in this time of need.

A handful of Premier League sides donated matchday hospitality food and drink to local homeless charities after games were called off, for instance, while others made cash donations to local food banks. Chelsea, meanwhile, went one step further by making the hotel at Stamford Bridge available for use by NHS staff working at nearby hospitals.

Elsewhere, England manager Gareth Southgate delivered a dignified and heartfelt message to fans, demonstrating the kind of leadership that has sadly been lacking in the country’s politicians as the crisis deepens.

Football Channel, Saturday 28th March, 2020

“We were due to play next week and to represent you all this summer, but now is clearly not the moment for us to take centre-stage,” he wrote in an open letter on 20 March.

“The heroes will be the men and women who continue working tirelessly in our hospitals and medical centres to look after our friends and families. They won’t receive the individual acclaim, but we all know their importance is beyond anything we do on the pitch.

“When we play again as an England team, it will be at a time when not only our country but the rest of the world as well is on the road to recovery. Hopefully we will be closer to each other than ever, and ready for the beautiful distraction that football can bring.”

Former Yokohama F.Marinos and Omiya Ardija player David Babunski struck a similar tone in a Twitter post the following day, sharing some eloquent thoughts on the unfolding situation and the manner in which we should reflect on it to keep things in perspective.

“Technologically speaking, we find ourselves in a better position than ever before to deal with such a crisis, but where do we stand morally and psychologically?” the 26-year-old asked.

“Are we smart enough to use the tools at our disposal effectively? Are we compassionate enough to really care for one another’s wellbeing regardless of ethnicity and above economic interests? Are our priorities in the correct order?”

While Babunski was considering the issue on a wider scale, his musings also provide food-for-thought with regards to the relationship between football clubs and their fans.

“This pandemic is forcing us to drop our arrogance and egocentricity and look straight into our vulnerability as a species. It makes obvious our dependency on each other for surviving and thriving in a globalized world. It highlights the urgent necessity of transcending our tribal, nationalistic, limited identities and adopt[ing] a universal perspective of who we are if [we] want to co-operate successful[ly] at [a] large scale.”

Perhaps it is too optimistic to hope that the current crisis produces a long-term change, but here’s hoping the difficulties endured can produce a new sense of perspective about football and the role it should play in society.


Coronavirus forcing J.League into a corner

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc over the past month, and with the impact of the virus showing no signs of slowing down the J.League could soon have some big decisions to make… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th March, 2020

When the J.League announced its first coronavirus-induced break on 25 February, it came a little out of the blue and was greeted with plenty of surprise.

The decision to postpone the second round of Levain Cup group stage games – swiftly followed by a pause in all regular league action until 15 March – preceded the government’s request that all elementary, middle, and high schools close, and was seen by many as an excessive measure.

A fortnight on, however, the situation isn’t looking any better medically, while the general mood in society – sounding train alarms because somebody sneezed, panic buying toilet paper, selling face masks at exorbitant prices – is becoming increasingly fraught.

In that context, it was much less surprising when J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai held a hastily arranged press briefing on the evening of 9 March to confirm that, as speculated, the break would be extended, this time until 3 April.

Even that date was only offered as one the league will, “do everything in [its] power to resume by”, and with the virus spreading steadily around the world and no-one really sure when or if it will slow down, it is hard to know when business will be able to resume as normal.

Whether people are more at risk of spreading or catching the virus by attending football matches than they are on the commuter trains which are still running and packed to-the-brim is certainly up for debate, but seeing as this is a football column and the writer has no medical expertise whatsoever, the rights and wrongs of cancelling games isn’t something that can really be addressed here.

What can be said is that erring on the side of caution is ultimately preferable to underestimating the consequences of a new and developing virus, and the J.League’s unprecedented joint task force with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) shows the organisation is doing all it can to ensure the issue is dealt with as effectively as possible.

The impact of the decision, however, is obviously far-reaching. Fans, media, and sponsors are all being negatively affected by the lack of regular games to provide entertainment, give them things to broadcast/write/talk about, or provide a return on investments, and the longer the break goes on the greater those frustrations will be felt.

It is the players who could be suffering the most though.

Professional athletes need to ensure they are in the best physical condition when competition comes around, and having spent pre-season working at building their fitness up towards the new campaign they are now being held in a strange kind of limbo after just one round of games.

Mentally, too, it must be incredibly difficult to maintain the right levels of motivation when there is no clear target in sight – and while perhaps unavoidable, the tentative re-start dates being proposed and then removed can’t be helping in that regard.

Pre-season training is often described as a tough slog, but it is at least endured with the aim of being in shape for the opening day of the season. With no-one currently knowing when they’ll be back out on the pitch, things must be very difficult – boring, even – for the players going through the motions at training right now.

J.League Chairman Mitsuru Murai

This disruption could also negatively impact them looking further ahead as well.

The J.League already had an intermission worked into this year’s schedule on account of the Olympics, with J1 set to take a month and a half off and J2 and J3 out of action for three weeks each. The latest is that those breaks will remain in place, meaning a lot of midweek rounds of matches will be needed before and after the Games – assuming, of course, that the Olympics themselves still happen – if the full season is to be completed as planned.

FIFA has no rules concerning how frequently games can be played, but recommends at least two days between matches. However, between 2007 and 2009 Dupont et al. analysed the effect of playing at the weekend and in midweek on 32 participants in the UEFA Champions League and noted in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010 that, “The recovery time between 2 matches, 72 to 96 hours, appears sufficient to maintain the level of physical performance tested but is not long enough to maintain a low injury rate.”

J1 teams had eight rounds of midweek games on the schedule for this season (three in the league and five in the ACL or Levain Cup), J2 clubs had four (nine for Matsumoto Yamaga, including the Levain Cup), and J3 two. The coronavirus interruption has already ensured that five J1, two Levain, six J2, and four J3 rounds need to be rescheduled, and looking at the calendar it is increasingly difficult to see how, even if things do resume at the start of April, all matches can be fulfilled without putting an undue strain on the players.

Cancelling the Levain Cup – or converting it to a straight knockout format, as in 2011 – has been suggested by some as an option, but while that would free up some time for most J1 teams it wouldn’t help those who also have ACL commitments, nor would it benefit anybody in J2 or J3 except the aforementioned Yamaga.

In such a situation, some thinking outside of the box may be necessary.

One approach that could be taken, for example, is to employ a similar system to that of the Scottish Premier League, whereby at a certain point the league splits into top and bottom halves.

For J1, this could mean each team playing each other once (17 matches) before breaking into a top nine and bottom nine. The top nine would then play each other once more to determine the champions and qualifiers for the ACL, while the bottom nine would play out their remaining eight games to avoid relegation. In J2 this would mean 21 games and then a split to top and bottom 11s (most likely cancelling the play-offs and only having two automatic promotion berths), while J3 would mirror the format of J1.

This suggestion of course has drawbacks – fans would have less games to watch, fewer home games would mean clubs losing out on revenue, rights holders would have less matches to broadcast – but in the current situation it is hard to envisage any perfect solutions, and flexibility and compromise are going to be vital whichever way the J.League ultimately decides to proceed.


Top 10 J.League Stadiums

In the nearly 11 years I’ve lived in Japan I have had the pleasure of seeing all but one of the current 40 J1 and J2 teams play at home (a trip to Ryukyu is in the pipeline), plus a handful of those in J3 as well. In their own ways each stadium I have been to left an impression and provided an insight into the culture of Japanese football, and I look forward to visiting several again – as well as some new ones too. The following, however, is my current top 10… (日本語版)

Football Channel 6th March, 2020

10: Shonan BMW Hiratsuka Stadium

Despite having a track (a huge drawback for any football stadium in the world), I always enjoy my trips to Hiratsuka. The walk from the stadium isn’t too taxing and helps build the tension ahead of kick-off – especially the final stretch, once you arrive in the park thriving with pre-game activity – and Bellmare do very well to capture the spirit of the Shonan area and imprint their identity on proceedings. It’s ageing and lacks the sparkle of plenty of new stadiums, but for me therein lies a lot of the charm of this venue.

9: Tochigi Green Stadium

Tochigi SC’s home stadium is another Japanese ground that has done very well to merge into its surrounding environment, nestled snugly amongst the trees in Kiyohara Kita Park. It’s not the biggest so would be tested if the club were to ever make it to J1 – and, aside from a token roof over part of the main stand, fans and media alike are left fully exposed to the elements – but for those fans looking for a scenic location to catch a live game, Green Stadium is a must-visit.

8: Ekimae Real Estate Stadium

An older venue with plenty of character, Sagan Tosu’s stadium is a striking structure I’d recommend anyone to visit. Almost unique in Japan in that it can be seen the moment you step off the train, the access is spectacular and the tall raking stands demand attention from the platform at Tosu station. Because of the way all four rise up so dramatically – they appear to almost be at right-angles to the pitch – supporters are incredibly close to the action, and when full this ground is capable of creating a really raucous atmosphere.

Tochigi Green Stadium

7: Best Denki Stadium

Best Denki is pretty much the perfect size for a J.League stadium. Looking rather like a small spaceship has landed in the middle of the woods, the curvature of the main stand is striking and draws you in as you approach Avispa Fukuoka’s home, and the sweeping arc looks even more impressive once inside. The fact the back stand mirrors the same design serves to enclose the pitch wonderfully, while the openness of those behind the goal frames things perfectly and allows just enough of the outside world to sneak in.

6: Fukuda Denshi Arena

JEF United’s stadium is, like so many other aspects of the club, J1 quality. ‘Fukuari’ isn’t blessed with picturesque surroundings like several other stadiums on this list, but after a short walk from Soga station you arrive at a compact, attractive, and atmospheric ground that most teams in the world would be proud to call home. Supporters are right on top of the action, and thanks to the roof encircling the whole venue, the atmosphere remains in the bowl for the full 90 minutes. A terrific place to watch football.

5: Toyota Stadium

The only giant venue on this list, Toyota makes an appearance thanks to its spectacular look and, for a super-arena, impressively close feel. To say it’s a pain to get to would be something of an understatement, but once on the nearby Toyota Bridge the trek out to deepest darkest Toyota all feels worth it and Nagoya Grampus’ home ground takes the breath away. It’s just as impressive inside, too, with the stands rising sharply up into the sky – or, in adverse weather, to meet the retractable roof that slots slickly overhead to seal the atmosphere in.

4: IAI Stadium Nihondaira

Nihondaira has almost everything required of a football stadium: a picturesque setting, a pitch that’s close to the stands, and a feeling of history. Shimizu S-Pulse haven’t been challenging for titles since the J.League’s early days, but the echoes of those glories seem to reverberate around this storied venue, which sits proudly on high overlooking its hometown. The view of Mount Fuji is the cherry on the icing on the cake, and ensures this ground should be on every groundhopper’s bucket list.

Yurtec Stadium, Sendai

3: Sunpro Alwin

There aren’t many stadiums in Japan that can generate an atmosphere quite like that at Alwin. Matsumoto Yamaga’s home ground acts as a beacon as you snake up the hill through Shinshu Skypark, and despite essentially being roofless the noise inside is something to behold. Supporters around Japan are frequently praised for getting behind their teams for the full 90 minutes, but Yamaga’s fans do so in such a visceral manner that this venue is one of the few in the country that must truly feel like an away game for visiting teams.

2: Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium

This may be a rickety old venue, but I would venture to say that without it Kashiwa Reysol would have been far less successful over the years. The walk to the stadium from Kashiwa station winds along streets strewn with Reysol yellow, and everything from the crackly PA system to the nets behind the goals serves to create an environment that embodies the identity of the club. Visiting teams struggle in this atmosphere, and part of Reysol’s soul would be erased if they ever left this home for a shiny new stadium.

1: Yurtec Stadium Sendai

There is something incredibly satisfying about watching Vegalta Sendai play at home. Yurtec Stadium isn’t out in the middle of nowhere like many grounds in Japan, but instead a straightforward five-minute walk from Izumi Chuo station. Upon arrival you encounter an attractive, well-proportioned, and atmospheric venue, and the manner in which it curves at the corners enables all four stands to merge seamlessly together and ensure the roar from the crowd echoes intimidatingly around. This is what every football stadium should be like.

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March 2020