After a dramatic climax to the season that saw Kashima Antlers defy the odds to win a record eighth championship title, and then some, the J. League first division returns to an orthodox one-stage format in 2017, with a massive sponsorship windfall providing an extra incentive for teams battling out the title race.
The J. League is pumping cash into the top flight in a bid to improve international competitiveness, using funds from a 10-year, ¥210 billion (about $2 billion) deal to sell digital online broadcasting rights to British-based Perform Group.
The pact is the largest commercial deal in the history of Japanese sports.
The prize money on offer for the team that wins the 2017 league title increases to a whopping ¥2 billion, five times what Kashima, whose operating revenue is roughly ¥4 billion, pulled in for winning the championship this year.
“I don’t know how much of the prize money the club would dish out to the players but the extra cash would certainly make us work harder!” Kashima’s veteran goalkeeper, Hitoshi Sogahata, told Kyodo News with a laugh after the club completed a league and cup double in the Emperor’s Cup final Sunday.
The prize money might not be enough to tempt J. League clubs to start offering the kind of eye-watering amounts of cash being spent on some of the world’s leading players in the Chinese Super League.
But Antlers, who raked in $4 million in prize money for their magical run to the final of the Club World Cup, are investing more heavily than usual in their squad with the aim of reaping the financial rewards in the future.
“We will go beyond our usual means during the offseason and aim for the championship title. That (prize money) would help us reap the benefits further down the line,” said Kashima team director Mitsuru Suzuki.
Antlers have already bolstered their squad with a number of signings including Brazilians Pedro Junior from Vissel Kobe and Leo Silva from Albirex Niigata.
Yet those names, with all due respect, cannot compare to the likes of Argentine striker Carlos Tevez, who has become the latest high-profile South American to move to the Chinese Super League.
Shanghai Shenhua are thought to have paid $88.4 million for Tevez, a figure that would reportedly make him the sixth-highest-paid soccer player in the world.
The 32-year-old is the second recent big-money arrival in Shanghai after Brazilian midfielder Oscar joined Shenhua’s local rival, Shanghai SIPG, in a deal believed to be worth $73.5 million.
Graziano Pelle, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jackson Martinez are some of the other big names playing in China, whose government reportedly wants to turn the country into a soccer power, setting the goal of having a team capable of winning the World Cup by 2050.
Since its inauguration in 1993, the J. League has seen its fair share of high-profile foreign players come and go, including Brazilian legend Zico, Gary Lineker and Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, although they have been fewer and farther between in recent years.
Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan was arguably the last household name to play in the J. League when he joined Cerezo Osaka in January 2014, but showing that money cannot always guarantee success, Cerezo were relegated to the second division during his first season with the club.
Japanese soccer has made great strides in the last decade or so and the large majority of the national team’s players are plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.
Sogahata believes J. League clubs would benefit from bringing homegrown players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa back to Japan from Europe just as much as spending a fortune on foreign stars.
“I would not think it is bad if players just come to Japan to pick up their final pension paycheck. I think that is okay and obviously it is up to the teams to make that kind of call,” he said.
“For a team like Antlers, I think we would benefit as much by the return of (former Kashima) players like (Cologne striker Yuya) Osako or (Schalke defender Atsuto) Uchida, be it either simply for financial gain or to strengthen the team.”
First-stage winner Kashima lost its last four games of the regular season and finished third in the overall standings, 15 points behind first-placed Urawa Reds, before coming to life in the postseason.
A 1-0 win away to Kawasaki Frontale in the playoff semifinals was followed by Kashima’s J. League Championship win. Masatada Ishii’s side came from behind in the final’s second leg on Dec. 3 to win 2-1 against Reds and capture the title on the away goals rule with a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Antlers then stunned the world by becoming the first Asian team to reach the final of the Club World Cup, coming within an inch of beating Real Madrid, before eventually falling 4-2 in extra time.
The J. League’s two-stage system has had its critics, with some claiming it lacked fairness and others arguing that holding the championship playoff leads to tight scheduling.
Indeed, some Kashima players, with the team having finished so far behind Urawa in the standings in the regular season, looked embarrassed at being called champions after winning the title.
Speaking at the J. League award ceremony last month, Kashima captain Mitsuo Ogasawara said, “I am really pleased that we were able to win the J. League championship title but it was Urawa Reds who finished top with the most points over the course of the season.
“We respect that and next year we will do our best and try and finish top of the table.”