Soccer | From the Spot

Celebs hog spotlight at subpar J. League gala

Sunday’s J. League Awards should have been an opportunity for the league and its promotional team to take a victory lap after a 2019 season that shattered attendance records and drew unprecedented interest from overseas.

Instead, it demonstrated a stunning lapse in the league’s understanding of who its audience is and how the league has built its following over the last 27 seasons.

The first-division campaign, which ended with Yokohama F. Marinos winning their fourth title and first in 15 years, saw an average per-game crowd of 20,751 — the first time the J1 has broken the 20,000 barrier.

That accomplishment is a testament to the efforts the league, its clubs and broadcaster DAZN have put into marketing, from robust multimedia content on social channels to data-driven ticket sales that have succeeded in generating new fans and turning them into repeat visitors.

Yet those successes were glossed over at an awards ceremony that lacked the scale of past years, having taken place at a downtown Tokyo hotel rather than Yokohama Arena.

Instead, those in attendance — including several hundred fans lucky enough to win tickets through online drawings — were treated to a show heavy on B-class celebrities and light on the players and coaches who made the season what it was.

Of the show’s nine presenters, only one — former Nadeshiko Japan head coach Norio Sasaki — had any professional experience in the sport.

The event represented a sharp turn from previous years, when the J1 winner sent its entire squad and even the last-place J3 side was represented with a token delegation.

Instead, only the league winners appeared on stage — with the exception of J3 champions Giravanz Kitakyushu, whose season finale took place on Sunday, leaving them unable to attend.

Marinos only sent a handful of players to join manager Ange Postecoglou. The Australian coach received his award from male host Roland, who played for Kashiwa Reysol’s junior youth team but is best known for his current job — wooing women into champagne toasts and light conversation to the tune of several hundred dollars a pop.

Roland joined the Marinos delegation and fellow presenters Joy and Harry Sugiyama for the talk portion of the J1 winners’ presentation, with the three entertainers proceeding to spend more time speaking than any of the players who just 27 hours ago had captured the J. League title.

Backlash over the ceremony prompted Roland to apologize on his official blog in a post expressing sympathy for both the players and the fans — and stealthily advertising his role as a sub-track commentator for the ongoing EAFF E-1 Championship in Busan, South Korea.

“The players and supporters should be the focus of the awards,” wrote Roland. “With such limited time (during the ceremony), I recognize that I showed a lack of consideration by holding the microphone for longer than the players themselves.”

Things didn’t improve from there. New Japan Pro Wrestling star Masahiro Chono announced the Goal of the Year award, which went to Vissel Kobe star David Villa for his solo effort against Nagoya Grampus back in June. While technically competent, the goal lacked the “wow” factor of many other nominees, leading many to surmise that it was chosen for the name of the player attached to it.

But the worst was yet to come, with comedians Noritake Kinashi and Teruyuki Tsuchida as well as Akira of J-pop supergroup Exile all blundering their way through the reveal of the Best XI and Most Valuable Player.

First, Akira named midfielder Andres Iniesta as a member of FC Tokyo — not that the Spanish star noticed, as he had bailed out of the ceremony at the last minute, allegedly to recover from an injury ahead of the Dec. 21 Emperor’s Cup semifinals.

Then Kinashi, an ambassador for DAZN, omitted the “F” in “Yokohama F. Marinos” when announcing MVP Teruhito Nakagawa — a grievous sin in the Japanese soccer scene as it represents the absorption of Yokohama Flugels into Marinos at the end of the 1998 season.

Most online ire was saved for Tsuchida, whose jokes during the trophy handoff fell flat with fans who remembered him saying “rugby is so interesting I’m not watching soccer anymore” during a Rugby World Cup-related television appearance.

Historically, the awards have struggled to fit into a crowded December schedule, and this year was no different. With Nakagawa participating via video link from South Korea ahead of the E-1, viewers were denied a stirring MVP speech along the likes of Akihiro Ienaga’s last year or Kengo Nakamura’s in 2016.

It’s not the first time Iniesta has skipped out, either — foreign players nominated for awards have often missed the ceremony in favor of spending their limited holidays with family.

Such absences have never been enough to make the audience feel like they’ve been cheated out of a great event.

Sunday’s show, however, did not bring nearly enough to the table.

Perhaps league officials should consider the event’s most authentically J. League moment, when Kawasaki Frontale mascot Fronta — tuxedo and all — appeared on stage to collect the Best Young Player award in place of midfielder Ao Tanaka, who was with Nakagawa in Busan.

The made-for-Twitter moment managed to be charming and irreverent, yet without any of the disrespect shown by presenters later in the ceremony.

In retrospect, the two-hour show was strikingly similar to January’s pared-down kickoff conference, which excluded the J2 and J3 entirely.

What was once an opportunity for journalists to network with media officers from across the league, establish storylines for the upcoming season and interview players from regions outside their normal coverage zone had been transformed into a glitzy made-for-YouTube fashion runway.

It’s natural that these events must evolve with the times, but the league deserves more than a kickoff conference that doesn’t promote over half its clubs and an awards ceremony that only gives lip service to the teams, players and fans who made the season such a rousing success.

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