Soccer | From the Spot

Time ripe for Japan's Super Cup to hit road

by Dan Orlowitz

The annual Fuji Xerox Super Cup, held the weekend before the J. League opens for business, has over the last 25 years become a celebration of the league’s vibrant and friendly matchday culture.

It’s an excuse for neutral fans to converge, consume popular food items from across the league, meet and greet mascots from most of the league’s 55 clubs and mark the start of a new year for Japanese pro soccer.

On the pitch, it’s a chance for the champions of the previous year’s first division and Emperor’s Cup to add another trophy to their case and start the season on a winning note.

In reality, however, it’s a low-stakes minor title played between two teams which have usually undergone several roster changes and are in the midst of preparations for a busy season.

Saturday’s lackluster 1-0 win by Kawasaki Frontale over Urawa Reds was not exactly a convincing argument in favor of the Super Cup. Kawasaki outshot Urawa 12-1, with the Emperor’s Cup champions failing to take a single shot in the second half according to the official match summary.

With both teams granted five substitutions, it felt more like a training match and less like a cup final which concluded with one team lifting a trophy and both lifting giant novelty checks (¥30 million for Frontale and ¥20 million for the Reds).

Saturday’s sellout crowd of 52,587, the second-highest in Super Cup history behind the 53,167 who watched Verdy Kawasaki beat Bellmare Hiratsuka in 1995 at the old National Stadium, had more to do with the participants than the stature of the competition. Urawa fans were eager to watch their team claim a title in its Saitama Stadium home, while Kawasaki has rapidly become one of the league’s most popular clubs through its strong community ties.

Super Cup attendance has varied from year to year, often hinging on the participation of well-supported clubs from the Kanto area — Just 33,805 watched Sanfrecce Hiroshima defeat Gamba Osaka at Nissan Stadium in 2016.

A return to Tokyo when the New National Stadium opens for business next year may sell tickets but won’t do much to help the competition’s relevance, especially as it creeps from mid-late February to even earlier in the month.

So what are the J. League and Japan Football Association to do about the stagnating Super Cup?

Perhaps a change of scenery is in order, and Japan should follow in the footsteps of top European countries by moving its Super Cup abroad in order to expose Japanese soccer to new fans in growing markets.

France’s Trophee des Champions has not been held locally since 2009, instead making stops in Canada, Tunisia, Gabon, Austria, the U.S., Morocco and China.

Italy’s Supercoppa drew over 25,000 fans to Washington’s RFK Stadium in 1993, more than doubling its audience when it returned to the U.S. in 2003 at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey and attracting even bigger crowds to Beijing in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Spain held last year’s Supercopa in Tangiers, Morocco, and both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have held their Super Cups away from home, adding plenty of precedent for Japan to make a similar move.

As the J. League has focused nearly all of its international marketing efforts on Southeast Asia, with clubs regularly holding winter camps in the region and taking on local teams in the J. League Asia Challenge and other preseason competitions, hosting the Super Cup in a major city such as Bangkok, Jakarta or Hanoi increasingly seems like an idea worth considering.

It’s an especially attractive proposition in Thailand, where the J. League’s popularity has grown considerably as a result of players such as Consadole Sapporo’s Chanathip and Yokohama F. Marinos’ Theerathon making an impact in Japan. From a logistical perspective, holding the Super Cup in Bangkok would offer fewer hurdles and easier access for clubs, supporters, and media.

J. League fans might mourn the loss of what’s become an annual preseason get-together, while supporters of participating clubs won’t like the costs involved to watch their team contend for a trophy.

But maybe such a radical departure is exactly what’s needed for a competition which has remained largely unchanged for 26 years and has become one of Japanese soccer’s least-relevant matches.