Who says the Japanese are inflexible?
Not when it comes to the J. League.
The 13th year of professional soccer in Japan, which kicks off on Saturday, will be almost unrecognizable from the 1993 prototype.
For a start, the league has expanded over the years from 10 teams in that inaugural season to 30, with a record number of 18 in the top flight and two new clubs — Tokushima Vortis and Thespa Kusatsu — in J2.
And the two-stage system in J1 is now a thing of the past, following in the footsteps of the penalty shootout and the V-goal in extra time.
What the J. League is left with is a single-stage format in which the 18 teams play each other once at home and once away. The team with the most points after 34 matches will be the champion, without the need for a playoff between the two stage winners and a penalty shootout lottery to determine the top team after a nine-month slog.
In short, the J. League will join the mainstream soccer world, finally rid of the inconsistencies and bizarre situations produced by the two-stage system in which the most consistent team over the season did not necessarily receive its rightful reward.
Last season, for example, Urawa Reds won more points over the two stages (62) than any other team, but lost the championship on penalties to Yokohama F. Marinos, who had collected 59 points from their 30 games.
The final league table, with Marinos on top, despite having three fewer points than the team in second place, would look like a misprint around the world, but in Japan it was correct.
Not any more.
Reds manager Guido Buchwald, not surprisingly, welcomes the change.
“It’s good, not only for Japanese football but because this is the way it works all over the world,” said the German coach.
“It is a championship, and when you have two stages, with the winners of the stages playing in a final, it is a cup, not a league.
“In my opinion, the club that wins the most points after playing each team twice is the champion.”
At the other end of the glamour stakes, Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Takeshi Ono also approves of the change, but offers qualified support.
“From the aspect of Japanese football, I think one stage is better to move up to the world standard,” Ono said.
“But for a club like ours, a local club, it will be very difficult to win, so having a second stage was a benefit for us.”
Although the average J1 attendance last season of 18,965 was the second highest in history, behind the 1994 boom year of 19,598, Ono feels it could fall this time without a second stage to offer fresh hope and produce a new title race.
“I am anxious about that for one or two seasons,” he said.
“But by the third or fourth season, spectators will understand what a league game is.”
The only time a single-stage format has been held was in 1996, but it was scrapped after attendances fell. Looking back, however, this signaled the bursting of the initial J. League bubble, as crowds dropped even further when a two-stage system was restored in 1997.
Kashima Antlers won the single-stage title in 1996, the first of four league championships in six years for the Ibaraki powerhouse.
When this was pointed out to Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo, he smiled and commented: “Is God aware of that, too?”
It has taken 12 years for the J. League to fall into line, but officials now feel that the fans are ready for a true championship without the need for gimmicks.