It’s not even February, and a J. League team has been eliminated from the Asian Champions League.
Following Melbourne Victory’s 1-0 win at Kashima Stadium on Tuesday, Kashima Antlers became the first Japanese team ever to bounce out of the continental competition’s playoff stage.
While the 2018 Asian champions played well and were arguably unlucky to give up a goal to former Urawa Reds striker Andrew Nabbout in miserable conditions, it must also be noted that the circumstances of a competitive schedule that has crept earlier and earlier into winter were far from favorable.
After the team’s 2-0 defeat to Vissel Kobe in the Jan. 1 Emperor’s Cup, Kashima players had less than two weeks of rest before the team reconvened under new manager Antonio Carlos Zago, whose task of rebuilding Japan’s most decorated team has become that much more difficult.
With the J. League’s first division set to kick off on Feb. 21 and the ACL’s group stage timed for earlier in the month, Kashima is far from the only club feeling the time crunch. Preseason camps are starting earlier than ever, with clubs often holding press events to unveil their crop of new signings even before all of their transfer needs have been addressed.
It wasn’t always like this — 2020 is only the fifth year of the J1 opening in February. Prior to that, the J. League’s opening weekend signified the end of winter, with March sunshine quickly making way for cherry blossom parties around stadiums in early April and kids taking in games during the Golden Week holiday in May.
Other than the Emperor’s Cup on Jan. 1, the only meaningful fixtures played in the first two months of the year were the Super Cup, traditionally scheduled a week before the J1 opener, and occasionally an ACL group stage game.
The shift toward winter began in 2015, when Kashiwa Reysol needed 120 minutes to beat Chonburi in a Feb. 15 ACL playoff.
The playoff round moved all the way up to Feb. 9 in 2016, while the J1 opened on Feb. 27 — the league’s first February launch — in order to avoid any clashes between the end of the regular season, the much-maligned championship series and the ACL final.
That was mercifully the last year of the J. League’s shambolic two-stages-plus-playoffs format, but the February start has remained as the league navigates an increasingly busy calendar which includes an expanding Levain Cup, the Emperor’s Cup and breaks for major international events such as 2018’s FIFA World Cup and last year’s Rugby World Cup, the latter of which forced several teams out of their usual home grounds.
This year, there is an Olympic-sized elephant in the room containing Nittei-kun, the J. League’s famous scheduling computer. With so many stadiums and training grounds set to be borrowed by athletes from around the world for the Tokyo Games, the league had no choice but to schedule a month-long summer break for all three divisions between mid-July and mid-August.
The Super Cup between Yokohama F. Marinos and Vissel Kobe will have its earliest-ever tilt on Feb. 8, while the Levain Cup’s group stage will unusually begin on Feb. 16, even earlier than the Feb. 21 J1 curtain-raiser.
The tight schedule even affects the extent to which the league can be promoted. In past years the J. League’s annual kickoff conference featured each and every club in the three divisions, but since 2019 it has been limited to the J1 — an especially hard blow for journalists covering the J2 and J3 who have fewer resources with which to establish narratives for the coming season.
It all adds up to a miserable experience for supporters, whose eagerness to see their teams back on the pitch can be tempered by the dread of having to bundle up for weeks of winter-weather games.
That’s certainly true of FC Tokyo fans on Tuesday, who watched their team outlast Ceres-Negros in freezing rain on a waterlogged pitch that looked more suited to rice farming than soccer. Before Sei Muroya’s goal, it was all too possible to contemplate a shock scenario in which Tokyo exited alongside Kashima.
While Asian soccer has a lot of moving pieces, there’s much that could be done by the J. League to give players the time off they deserve and fans a better start to the season.
As previously suggested in the April 10, 2019, edition of From the Spot, converting the Levain Cup to a knockout tournament in line with other countries’ league cups would go a long way toward eliminating the current schedule’s bloat.
Staggered league scheduling similar to North America’s Major League Soccer could be another option.
Then there is the third rail of holding J1 fixtures during international breaks — an idea that has potential merit with the majority of Japan’s national team playing in Europe.
To start with, stakeholders need to realize that Japanese teams cannot play from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 without pause. Without acknowledging and addressing this pressing issue, the chances of more clubs repeating Kashima’s ignonimous achievement will continue to increase.