Soccer / J. League

J. League reaffirms commitment to safety for fans, players as new season approaches

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

After a record-setting 2019 season that saw larger crowds than ever attending games from Hokkaido to Okinawa, the J. League is committed to keeping both its fans and players safe.

Following a similar request to reporters covering last weekend’s Super Cup at Saitama Stadium, media attending Friday’s J. League Kickoff Conference were urged to wear masks as they spoke to players and managers about the upcoming first-division season.

“We’ve shared the package we used at last week’s Super Cup with all of our clubs,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai told The Japan Times.

“We installed disinfectant stations in all bathrooms and entrances, gave staff masks to wear, and instead of one doctor and three nurses we had two doctors and seven nurses ready to treat anyone who felt ill. Just like today, we’re doing what we can to prevent (COVID-19) from spreading.”

Murai said the J. League is considering a plan to distribute several million masks to its 56 clubs, but clubs will not distribute health questionnaires as South Korean clubs hosting Asian Champions League matches did earlier this week.

“We’re coordinating with hospitals to transport anyone who falls ill, but we can’t inspect tens of thousands of fans (at each game),” Murai said. “We’re sharing information with relevant government agencies and the league is prepared to cooperate with any instructions we’re given.”

Murai, who last month was re-elected to his fourth and final two-year term as chairman, said that the league would let clubs decide how best to tackle issues such as fan service and player safety during the outbreak.

“Each club has different circumstances,” Murai said. “You can’t come up with a standard that will cover J1 clubs drawing tens of thousands of fans per game and J3 clubs drawing hundreds or thousands of fans per game.”

During his brief speech during the presentation portion of the event, Murai emphasized that 2020 would be a key year for the league as Japan prepares to host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“We have national team players, Olympic players and global stars,” Murai told a crowd of several hundred media representatives and other officials.

“Last year I talked about bringing the J. League to the world, but in this Olympic year we want to show not only our quality of play, but our fairness and our safe and enjoyable match-day culture.”

In addition to their managers, J1 clubs were represented by at least one player — many of whom, such as Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Ao Tanaka, Urawa Reds defender Daiki Hashioka and Kashima Antlers striker Ayase Ueda, are eligible to represent Japan at the 2020 Games.

“As a team we want to get the league title back, and that’s our biggest priority,” said Tanaka, who made his senior debut in December’s EAFF E-1 Championship and also appeared in last month’s AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand.

“A lot of players appearing could play in the Olympics,” said J. League vice chairman Hiromi Hara. “I have high hopes for all of them.”

But despite the year being posed as a pivotal one for Japan’s young players, the audience’s biggest reaction was reserved for a handshake between 35-year-old Vissel Kobe captain Andres Iniesta and Kazuyoshi Miura, the legendary Yokohama FC striker who will turn 53 on Feb. 23.

“Our training camp went very well, and we’re in good shape,” said Miura of Yokohama FC, which finished second in last year’s J2 to return to the top flight for the first time since 2007.

“(J1 opening-weekend opponent) Kobe won the Emperor’s Cup (on Jan. 1) and has a lot of momentum. I’m looking forward to playing against them.”

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