Mitsuru Murai knows a thing or two about tough decisions.
After all, they’ve defined his tenure as J. League chairman over the last six years.
Tuesday was the latest such example, as Murai announced that the league would suspend its competitions for the next three weeks in the face of the growing COVID-19 threat.
It was surely not the way the 60-year-old envisioned the start of his fourth and final two-year term in charge of the league as it started 2020 reveling in the successes of last season, both on and off the pitch.
But instead of fielding softball questions from a half-dozen beat writers on the five newly approved Hundred Year Vision Clubs (Iwaki FC, Vonds Ichihara, Nankatsu SC, Veertien Mie and FC Osaka, for those keeping track), Murai had to stand in front of 50 journalists and multiple TV cameras and make the announcement dreaded by sporting officials: Game off.
“We didn’t have much time to make a decision after the government’s panel of experts held their news conference (on Monday night), Murai said on Tuesday evening at JFA House. “Other sports will be affected differently based on their schedules.
“The government’s recommendations involved the next couple of weeks, and because the J. League is running so many big events in that period we felt as though we had to make a decision.”
Even as fears over the novel coronavirus mostly centered around the infamous Diamond Princess harbored in Yokohama, the J. League and its clubs managed to hold the Super Cup, five Asian Champions League games, eight Levain Cup games and 20 first- and second-division fixtures without a hitch — or any infections among the 452,844 attending fans as well as matchday staff, club officials and media representatives.
Yet there was an uneasiness to last weekend’s J1 and J2 opening rounds, even as they presented plenty of exciting soccer to fans watching in Japan and — for the first time in quite a few countries — around the world. Photos depicting seas of fans wearing face masks went viral on Twitter, while Vissel Kobe’s decision to ban flags, songs and dancing altogether inspired debate over the club’s motives.
After a weekend in which more cases emerged across Japan and government experts warned the next seven to 14 days would be crucial in the country’s ability to contain the virus’ spread, Murai and his board of directors determined that the J. League’s only winning move, for now, was not to play.
It’s far from the only crucial decision Murai has had to make since inheriting the big chair from Kazumi Ohigashi in 2014.
In that season’s second round, a controversial ‘Japanese Only’ banner hung by a group of Urawa Reds fans in the concourse of Saitama Stadium sparked global outrage.
Faced with a crisis that threatened to tarnish the Japanese sports world’s positive international reputation, Murai punished Urawa with the first closed-door game in league history.
Later that year he drew the ire of fans across the country with the announcement of a new format for the top flight — two stages along with a convoluted championship playoff featuring anywhere from three to five clubs.
It was a tremendous gambit intended to generate media exposure for the stagnating league. But an increase in terrestrial broadcasts did not reap clear dividends as attendance barely ticked up, even with the promotional backing of new title sponsor Meiji Yasuda Life.
Though the J. League had planned to keep the new format in place through the Tokyo Olympics, it lasted only two seasons as the J1 returned to a single-stage format in 2017.
This move came alongside an even bigger wager — $2 billion across 10 years, to be precise — as DAZN became the J. League’s new domestic broadcaster, marking the first transition of a major Japanese sports league from traditional broadcasts to streaming.
Three years into the DAZN era, the J. League is flourishing — largely, even his early critics can admit, due to Murai’s efforts. He has defended the badge as passionately as any player does their club’s, which is why the board’s decision — as well as his insistence that games should as much as possible be played in front of fans when the league does resume — carries that much more weight.
Assuming COVID-19 can be brought under control in the next three weeks, the J. League will face a challenge it last encountered after the Great East Japan Earthquake when it attempts to resume competition in the wake of events that have dampened enthusiasm and interest.
But Murai’s decision to put the country’s needs before the league was as bold as it was necessary.
“I’m sorry to everyone who was looking forward to watching soccer,” Murai said on Tuesday. “In a sense this is a national crisis and this is how we can contribute toward solving it.”
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