The J. League is not without options as it adjusts its schedule in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
But If play does not resume early next month, those options will become increasingly less appealing to club and league officials hoping to avoid making alterations to the season schedule.
Monday’s announcement that the league would not be able to restart as planned on March 18 was widely expected as cases of the new coronavirus rose in Japan and items such as face masks and disinfectant remained almost impossible to come by.
That news followed the second meeting of the joint J. League-NPB task force, during which a panel of medical experts told the two pro competitions that there simply wasn’t enough time to prepare stadiums for an influx of tens of thousands of fans under present conditions.
On Monday evening, J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai told reporters at JFA House that the league’s decision-making process was based on six levels including a desire to hold games for fans and supporters, the potential for players to become infected and the possibility that a national state of emergency could be called.
“If a team needs to be quarantined, they may not be able to field 18 players and the match may not be able to take place, even without fans,” Murai said according to the league’s official website. “In that case, we would have to make drastic adjustments to the match schedule.
“If we can resume by April 3 we’ll be able to fit all of our matches one way or another, but if (players need to be quarantined) we’ll have to take desperate measures.”
According to Murai, a restart on the first weekend of April would allow the J. League to play its full slate of matches without having to curtail the Levain Cup or play games during either FIFA international match windows or the six-week Olympic break.
But should it come to that, the league can at least look back on the 2011 season, which after just one round was postponed over a month by the Great East Japan Earthquake, as a reference point.
That year’s Nabisco Cup was cut back significantly after the Tohoku disaster, with the group stage scrapped in favor of two home-and-away elimination rounds before resuming as normal with the quarterfinals.
The current competition could be shortened by eliminating the playoff stage entirely, with group stage winners and the top second-place team joining Japan’s three Asian Champions League representatives in the quarterfinals.
Canceling the cup entirely would be an incredibly bitter pill for the J. League and title sponsor Yamazaki Biscuit Co. to stomach, but if it’s between a tournament which rarely draws big crowds until the final and getting in all 34 J1 rounds, the decision would surely be clear.
The question of whether or not the first division should play if needed during international breaks is slightly thornier, if only because clubs with a large number of national team players would be at a disadvantage.
But the delay of Japan’s World Cup qualifiers originally scheduled for March and June to later in the fall gives the J. League a convenient out, if the Japan Football Association is willing to cooperate.
A measure the JFA could take — even if the possibility is remote — is to only call up Europe-based players for those games, allowing J1 teams to play mostly at full strength.
After all, with well over 50 Japanese players currently registered to first- or second-division UEFA sides, there are more than enough options available for head coach Hajime Moriyasu, who shouldn’t even need all of his A-listers to get past Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia.
That said, it’s an unlikely scenario — domestic players would surely object to being shut out of the national team picture in such circumstances, even if an overseas-based Samurai Blue is already likely to become a reality within the next decade if not the current World Cup cycle.
While the J1 will be the primary focus for most, it’s worth remembering that the J. League also has to find ways to schedule its second and third divisions, in addition to protecting smaller clubs who are already feeling a significant financial pinch and managing the schedules of any teams advancing deep into the ACL knockout stage.
Some fans will not be happy with potential options being discussed, such as a ban on cheering, buffer zones between individual seats, longer road trips for certain clubs due to venue availability and games held behind closed doors.
But at this point, as the Japanese soccer community enters the third week of a hiatus that will stretch to at least five, any soccer would be better than none at all.