Albirex Niigata fans have had very little to cheer about this season.

The Denka Swan Stadium residents, who once boasted the biggest crowds in the J. League’s first division despite never mounting any serious title challenges, struggled in their first year back in the league’s second flight since 2003 and will finish the campaign no higher than mid-table.

On Monday, however, came some good news from the club in the form of an announcement that defender Fumiya Hayakawa’s contract has been unfrozen, marking a major step in the 24-year-old’s journey to return to the pitch after a two-year battle with acute leukemia.

Hayakawa, who was diagnosed with the disease in mid-2016 and underwent a bone marrow transplant later that year, began training with Albirex’s academy sides in March and joined top team training in August.

A fund established by the club to support Hayakawa during his convalescence raised ¥27.3 million ($240,000) in donations.

“So much has happened in the two years since my stem cell transplant,” Hayakawa wrote in a statement published on the club’s official website. “I began my rehabilitation, I started kicking the ball again, I trained with the academy teams, and I was even able to play with (former Albirex captain) Isao Homma in his testimonial match.

“I could not have reached this point alone and I’m deeply grateful to the club for the support and understanding it has shown me, as well as to all of our fans and everyone else who have offered their encouragement and support.”

According to club chairman Yukio Nakano, the decision to unfreeze Hayakawa’s contract was made after confirming with the player’s medical team that his fitness levels were suitable for top-level soccer.

“He’s recovered to the point where you can’t see much of a difference between his abilities and those of his teammates,” Nakano said in a statement.

Hayakawa, who has visited juvenile hospital wards and elementary schools during his recovery, will continue to receive regular checkups as he approaches remission.

No Rugby World Cup break

The 2019 J. League first division is set to start on Feb. 22 and conclude on Dec. 7, according to a Kyodo report.

If the report is true, it would mark the second straight year in which the league has kicked off on a Friday. The scheduling of more weeknight fixtures is part of a marketing effort by the league and domestic broadcaster DAZN to increase the competition’s visibility dubbed “Friday Night J. League.”

According to Kyodo, the J. League will not break for the Rugby World Cup, which will take place from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2 across Japan. Clubs affected by the use of their home grounds for that competition — specifically Consadole Sapporo (Sapporo Dome), FC Tokyo (Ajinomoto Stadium), Yokohama F. Marinos (Nissan Stadium), Nagoya Grampus (Toyota Stadium) and Vissel Kobe (Noevir Stadium) as well as promotion candidates Avispa Fukuoka (Level 5 Stadium) and Oita Trinita (Oita Bank Dome) — will either make use of secondary home grounds or face extended road trips during the World Cup period.

The traditional Fuji Xerox Super Cup between league champion Kawasaki Frontale and the winner of the Emperor’s Cup will reportedly take place on Feb. 16.

The J1’s second- and third-placed teams will take part in the playoff round of the 2019 AFC Champions League on Feb. 19, while Frontale and the Emperor’s Cup champions will join the group stage directly from March 4 and 5.

Sugimoto, Morita join NT

The Japan Football Association has announced a pair of changes to Hajime Moriyasu’s Samurai Blue squad for the team’s upcoming friendlies against Venezuela on Nov. 16 in Oita and Kyrgyzstan on Nov. 20 in Nagoya.

Cerezo Osaka striker Kenyu Sugimoto will fill in for Kashima Antlers ace Yuma Suzuki, who suffered an ankle sprain in his team’s AFC Champions League-clinching draw against Persepolis in Tehran on Saturday.

Sugimoto is joined by Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Hidemasa Morita, who was added to the roster in relief of injured Sanfrecce Hiroshima veteran Toshihiro Aoyama. The 23-year-old Morita earned his international debut in Japan’s 3-0 win over Costa Rica in September.

Fan podcast hits milestone

The English-language “J-Talk Podcast” celebrated a major milestone last week with the release of its 250th episode.

Launched in 2012 by host Ben Maxwell, the series resumed this year after a one-year hiatus. Over the course of its run the show has featured some 40 different guests including journalists, players and fans to discuss all aspects of soccer in Japan.

The podcast’s official Twitter account can be found at @JTalkPod.

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