COVID-19 has already had an outsized effect on Asian soccer, forcing the relocation of a women’s Olympic qualifying group to Australia from Wuhan, China, as well as the rescheduling and then postponement of Asian Champions League games involving Chinese clubs.
In South Korea, fans attending ACL games were asked to fill out forms detailing their recent travel histories and health conditions and walk past a temperature-measuring camera. According to local newspaper Chosun, a male FC Tokyo fan who reported recent travel to Singapore and Malaysia was taken to a local hospital after registering a fever of 38 degrees Celsius.
With the virus’ exposure limited in Japan thus far, the J. League has not been as affected as other neighboring competitions. That’s not stopping the league — which distributed disposable masks to members of the media covering last Saturday’s Super Cup — or its clubs from taking precautions.
A growing list of clubs have announced the suspension of fan service at training grounds in order to shield players from increased risk, with second-division sides Ventforet Kofu and Tokyo Verdy taking the additional step of canceling fan appreciation events.
While symptoms of the virus are relatively mild, vulnerable segments of the population could face increased risk. In particular, league and club officials will be concerned about the 13.7 percent of fans in their 60s and older — a demographic known to fill a disproportionately large number of seats at practice facilities across the country and regularly interact with players.
Some foreign players are also showing unease, with Tokyo’s Arthur Silva telling Globo Esporte that he no longer leaves his home other than to attend training sessions.
“I feel threatened by potentially not knowing who’s infected or who’s contagious,” the second-year midfielder told the Brazilian outlet. “So far there’s no need to leave Japan and go home (to Brazil), but if the situation gets worse it’s something to think about.”
It’s not the first time clubs have taken such precautions — there’s always several that do so during particularly bad flu seasons. But the extent to which they are doing so is an indication of how serious the risk of a possible epidemic is being taken.
Overseas broadcasters named
The league’s new international broadcasting deal with advertising giant Dentsu has already borne fruit in the form of two major markets getting live J1 games with English-language commentary.
FreeSports TV will show four J1 games per round in the United Kingdom, marking the first time Japanese soccer will be televised live in the region. Optus Sport will present the league in Australia, which is emerging as a major potential audience for the J. League following the success of Yokohama F. Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou.
The Friday-night season opener between Shonan Bellmare and Urawa Reds on Feb. 21, as well as Shimizu S-Pulse-FC Tokyo, Marinos-Gamba Osaka, and Vissel Kobe-Yokohama FC on Feb. 23, have been announced as the international Round 1 slate.
Based on the peak viewership of 70,000 watching the J. League’s international YouTube stream of the Super Cup on Saturday, it’s clear that there is plenty of demand from outside Japan.
With the return of the league’s official English-language Twitter account, the creation of an international Instagram account and the establishment of an English-language YouTube channel, 2020 may be the year that fans following the competition from overseas get the volume of content they’ve been waiting for.
Verdy promotes Ramos
Tokyo Verdy may have an all-new look, but the J. League co-founder is hoping an old face can help steer the team to better results.
The second-division side on Monday announced former player and manager Rui Ramos as its new team director.
Ramos, who played for Verdy from 1977-1996 and then again from 1997-1998, was one of Japanese soccer’s first foreign stars, contributing to the club’s five Japan Soccer League titles as well as its two J. League championships.
He took Japanese nationality in 1989 and went on to earn 32 appearances for the Samurai Blue.
Since retiring, Ramos has coached several clubs, guiding Verdy to J1 promotion in 2007 and managing FC Gifu for 2½ seasons from 2014-16.
Last year, Ramos led Japan’s beach soccer team to a semifinal finish at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Tahiti.
“Not enough people remember Verdy’s DNA,” Ramos said at a news conference on Monday according to Chunichi. “Nobody loves this club more than I do. I want to bring back the glamor of Verdy’s past.”
As team director, Ramos will advise the club on matters related to player enhancement and youth development.