The J. League on Tuesday announced the postponement of all four of its competitions as the COVID-19 outbreak continued to have wide-reaching effects on the sports world.
All 94 matches scheduled to run through March 15 were affected by the decision, including the second through fourth rounds of the J1 and J2 as well as the first two rounds of the third division and two rounds of the Levain Cup, the league’s cup tournament.
“A government panel of medical experts declared on Monday night that the next 1-2 weeks will be a critical juncture in terms of whether the virus rapidly spreads or can be contained,” said a statement from the league.
“In order to cooperate as much as it can to contain the virus and prevent its spread, the J. League is preparing to resume its match calendar in the second half of March.”
Tuesday’s announcement marked the first time that J. League fixtures had been postponed or suspended due to a public health crisis since at least 1996, according to league records.
The last incident that caused multiple rounds of fixtures to be postponed was the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which impacted five J1 and six J2 rounds and forced the Nabisco Cup to be reformatted as a knockout competition.
“The process of reaching this decision has been difficult,” said J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai at a packed news conference at JFA House on Tuesday evening.
“(After this weekend’s matches) we held a meeting of the executive committee and discussed the opinions of all stakeholders including fans and players. There were a lot of concerns … such as how the media areas, dining areas and mascots should be handled.
“We can’t hold a competition if players or staff get infected. We want to take the experts’ recommendations seriously.”
While Murai did not rule out the possibility that fixtures after March 15 could be delayed, he insisted that holding games behind closed doors would only be considered as a last resort.
“As a pro sports organization we are supported by the fans. We exist not only to put on a competition but to deliver that to the fans,” Murai said. “We would prefer as much as possible to avoid closed-door games. Even if we have to adjust the schedule or change the competition format we want to play in front of fans.”
While clubs will have to work with local municipalities to secure venues for rescheduled fixtures, Murai all but ruled out make-up games during the Olympic break.
“We want to avoid the Olympic period by scheduling weekday matches or using other breaks. . . . Depending on the situation, we might hold make-up games before or after the break,” Murai said.
“A lot of soccer officials will be focused on the Olympics, including the media. We also want to make the competition as fair as possible for clubs.”
The announcement comes one day after South Korea’s K-League announced that it would delay the start of its competition, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 29.
Asian Champions League fixtures involving Chinese clubs have also been rescheduled or postponed, while qualifying matches for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic women’s soccer tournament was shifted from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, to Australia.
On Sunday, South Africa’s Under-23 men’s team pulled out of a friendly with Japan originally scheduled for March 27 in Kyoto.