Faced with an ever-shifting series of threats to its competitive calendar from the COVID-19 pandemic, the J. League announced on Thursday that it will suspend relegation for the 2020 season while allowing teams in the second and third divisions to fight for top-tier promotion.
All 56 J. League clubs agreed to the extraordinary move in a meeting of the league’s executive committee earlier in the day.
League chairman Mitsuru Murai told a news conference that the decision was made in order to encourage players competing under difficult circumstances while not punishing clubs for events out of their control, such as quarantines or closed-door matches.
“There are going to be a lot of obstacles in the way, and the competition may not be balanced or fair, but we want soccer to continue,” Murai said on Thursday afternoon.
“There are areas with lots of infections and areas with none where kids are already going back to school,” Murai said. “Some teams may be able to play, and other teams might not be able to, disrupting the integrity of the competition.”
“Some teams might have to deal with several games behind closed doors on short notice. … If we play during the Olympics or international match windows then teams may be without their national team players.
“Even if managers have to use players from their youth team (to fill the squad in the event that top-team players are quarantined), we want matches to be played.”
Under normal circumstances, two teams would be automatically promoted and relegated to and from the first division, with a third promotion/relegation spot decided in a season-ending tournament.
The new plan will see the top two clubs automatically promoted from the J2 to the J1 and from the J3 to the J2, temporarily increasing the J1 to 20 teams with the J2 remaining at 22 teams.
The 2021 season would see four teams relegated from the J1 and two promoted from the J2, restoring their current memberships of 18 and 22 teams, respectively.
However, with the league’s club license system governing whether or not clubs are allowed to be promoted, league officials admitted there is a possibility that divisions could be composed of an odd number of teams in 2021.
According to Murai, the league is considering a proposal that at least 75 percent of the schedule must be played in order for the season to be considered complete and for promotion to be implemented.
While Murai had previously insisted that an April 3 restart would allow the league to carry out its original fixture list in full, his comments represented a shift in thinking for the league as it accepts the possibility that not all games may be played this season.
The league held its first round of matches on Feb. 21-23 before suspending its competitions two days later as a result of the new coronavirus outbreak, which has brought the sporting world to a standstill just four months before the scheduled start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
League officials said that while some progress has been made in collecting supplies required to safely hold games with spectators, such as masks and alcohol disinfectant, thermometers are in short supply due to increased demand.
The final decision on whether to restart the league on April 3 will be made on March 25.
The J. League and Nippon Professional Baseball’s joint coronavirus task force will hold its fourth briefing two days earlier on March 23.