Soccer | From the Spot

COVID-19 strikes Japanese soccer

Since late February, Japanese soccer’s professional and amateur competitions have shut down in an attempt to protect players, coaches and fans from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak that has forced the cancellation of major sporting events around the world.

On Tuesday, a wrench was thrown into efforts to protect the Japanese game when Japan Football Association Chairman Kozo Tashima announced that he had tested positive for the new coronavirus after recording a low fever and symptoms of pneumonia.

Although international news outlets have focused on his role as the vice chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee, locally the 62-year-old is far better known for his seat at the head of the national soccer body.

It is in this capacity that Tashima traveled overseas between Feb. 28 and March 8, visiting Europe and the United States to promote Japan’s 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup bid.

After participating in the Feb. 29 general meeting of the International Football Association Board in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tashima went to Amsterdam. There, he wrote, “There was not the sense of crisis about the new coronavirus in early March that there is now. Everyone was hugging and shaking hands as usual.”

On March 2, Tashima presented Japan’s 2023 bid to the UEFA Council. The next day he appeared at the UEFA Congress and sat near Serbian F.A. President Slavisa Kokeza and Swiss F.A. Chairman Peter Gillieron, both of whom have contracted COVID-19.

Tashima’s next stop was Orlando, Florida, where he watched Nadeshiko Japan’s 3-1 defeat to Spain in the opening game of the SheBelieves Cup on March 5 before speaking to reporters in a densely-attended mixed zone session.

The following day he went to New York, where he conducted further lobbying for Japan’s World Cup bid. While details of those meetings have not been publicized, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that Tashima, during his time in Amsterdam, had been in the same room as Carlos Cordeiro, the U.S. Soccer president who resigned last week over language used in the federation’s legal battle with its women’s team over equal pay issues.

“In the United States as well, there wasn’t as much concern about the virus as there is now,” Tashima wrote in his statement, an indication of just how quickly the pandemic has spread from Asia to the rest of the world.

It is unclear whether Tashima met with Nadeshiko Japan’s players, but U.S. Soccer on Tuesday issued a statement saying that “we do not believe at this time that there was any direct interaction between (Tashima) and any player, coach or staff member of the United States Women’s National Team.”

Following his return to Japan on March 8, Tashima went to JFA House several times in preparation for Sunday’s board of directors meeting. It was after that meeting that Tashima learned of Kokeza’s illness and remembered their close proximity in Amsterdam. Upon registering a slight fever on Sunday, Tashima was advised Monday to undergo testing for the coronavirus after sharing his travel history and symptoms with local health officials.

“Even if I am away, the work of the JFA will not stop,” Tashima wrote, apologizing to those whose paths he may have crossed before his infection was discovered. “I pray that the Olympics and sports in Japan and all around the world can be held safely.”

While the JFA can indeed continue its business, with most employees working remotely since late February, it is also struggling with the challenge of preparing Japan’s men’s and women’s teams for the Olympics following the cancellation of a number of warm-ups this spring. That’s assuming, as we must for now, that the Olympics are held as scheduled.

The J. League is also advancing its preparations to resume play, whether that happens on April 3 as currently scheduled or as late as mid-May — a possibility chairman Mitsuru Murai alluded to during his appearance on TBS’ Super Soccer late Saturday night.

In a 22-minute video message to the league’s 1,500 players, Murai urged players to focus on their fitness, as they can expect to face a long string of fixtures on Wednesdays and Saturdays once competition resumes.

In order to alleviate the schedule, the league is reportedly evaluating a revised calendar for the Levain Cup that would see the final of the tournament postponed from Oct. 24 to Dec. 26. The Emperor’s Cup, organized by the JFA, has added an extra round in order to reduce the number of matches for J. League clubs, with the final still scheduled for Jan. 1 at the National Stadium.

For now, Japanese soccer fans are left with uncertainty until March 25, when the league will decide whether to go ahead with its tentative restart on April 3 or to extend its suspension a second time.

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