Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Tuesday night announcement of a state of emergency marked the latest and most dramatic step in Japan’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The emergency declaration covering seven prefectures, which will last through May 6, is also a fresh setback for the J. League as it attempts to restart its season.
Already, the break since late February’s first round has surpassed that of the 2011 campaign, which was halted for several weeks in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster. With the league on Wednesday announcing the postponement of all fixtures before May 30, this year’s suspension could end up doubling that of the one nine years ago.
“We continue to experience one frustrating day after another, but I ask that everyone takes care of themselves and the people around them in order to help us resume the season,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said in reaction to the government’s announcement.
Over 20 J. League clubs have halted squad practices or suspended team activities entirely since the beginning of the month, including all 18 based in prefectures affected by the state of emergency.
That includes the clubs of three players who have tested positive for COVID-19 — Vissel Kobe’s Gotoku Sakai, Cerezo Osaka’s Takumi Nagaishi and Thespa Kusatsu Gunma’s Tetsuya Funatsu. Two unnamed Vissel officials have also been infected.
As players hunker down and fans get their soccer fix however they can — whether that’s watching rebroadcasts of games from the league’s first season or recreating their favorite uniforms in Animal Crossing — concerns continue to mount over how the league and its clubs will overcome the biggest crisis they have ever faced.
Heavy losses expected
As Europe’s biggest clubs grapple with the thorny issue of whether to furlough employees or slash player wages, Japanese clubs operating on significantly smaller budgets are faced with cash flow problems that could threaten their very existence.
The situation has been most keenly felt at Consadole Sapporo, where all 28 squad players offered to relinquish a total of $1 million in salaries in order to help defray what could be at least $5 million in losses for the league’s northernmost side.
Consadole’s total budget for 2020 is $29.3 million, with $16.5 million going to player and staff wages — a figure representing less than half of Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual salary.
“With this proposal, the players have given us strength in saying they want to overcome this together,” club president Yoshikazu Nonomura told a news conference Tuesday. “There’s lots we have to do in order to create a better club than we were (before the coronavirus).”
Sapporo isn’t the only club feeling the pressure. Vegalta Sendai, which in January announced it had lost nearly $2.5 million last season, added an additional $1.43 million in extraordinary losses to its final balance sheet late last week.
“We recognize that it’s a difficult situation,” said Vegalta chairman Shuitsu Kikuchi. “There’s no estimate for when the league will resume, and if delays continue things will only get harder.”
The biggest blow could come from domestic broadcaster DAZN, which was reported last week to have withheld payments to other competitions held in limbo by the coronavirus, as it’s unclear when or if they will resume.
A similar move in Japan — or deepened financial troubles for the company that has branded itself as the “Netflix of sports” — would be a heavy blow for the J. League, which is in the fourth year of its decadelong $2 billion deal with the streaming service.
“DAZN is an important partner and we haven’t gotten any requests to revise our contract,” Murai told reporters on April 1. “We have a strong relationship with their senior management and there’s nothing to worry about in Japan.”
Among the areas where DAZN’s investment in the league has paid off is a significantly expanded prize pool, including an additional ¥1.55 billion awarded to J1 League winners in the three years following a championship.
But officials have indicated that this year’s prize amounts could be adjusted in order to give the league more funds to use in support of financially troubled clubs.
“With the season pressing on despite its integrity having been compromised, there have been discussions regarding whether the prize money should be paid in full,” said competitive integrity working group leader Shinji Kubota on April 1. “We’ll continue discussions as we evaluate the financial impact on the league and its clubs.
“In recent years we have transitioned from mutual survival (as a league) to competition (between clubs), but that concept needs to be re-evaluated.”
Money from the prize pool could shore up the league’s $10 million “stability fund,” which is intended to be loaned to clubs at risk of insolvency. That fund was last used in 2009, when bankruptcy-threatened Oita Trinita was forced to take a $6 million loan.
While such a loan would normally trigger a 10-point deduction in the standings, the league is considering a number of special exceptions for clubs who would otherwise be in breach of club license regulations — whether that means three straight seasons of financial losses, the inability to use a home stadium for over 80 percent of home games or the closure of soccer schools run by the club.
With the effects of the pandemic expected to stretch not for weeks or months but perhaps even years, officials are already bracing for a long battle.
“Even if we survive this year, next year and after will be incredibly difficult,” Nonomura said last month. “It’s disappointing because as a club we were starting to show some serious growth.”
Emperor’s Cup delayed
The J. League isn’t the only domestic soccer competition waiting out the coronavirus, with amateur leagues across the country pushing back the start of their schedules.
Reacting to the government’s state of emergency declaration on Tuesday, the Japan Football Association officially postponed the May 23 start of the Emperor’s Cup, which had already been expanded to eight rounds in order to stagger the participation of J. League clubs.
While the JFA also postponed the May 10 deadline for local associations to choose their representatives, some prefectures have curtailed their qualifying tournaments or done away with them entirely.
The Kanagawa Football Association, unable to hold the first two rounds of its tournament, chose Esperanza SC and Senshu University by lottery to face seeded J3 sides SC Sagamihara and YSCC Yokohama, respectively, in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, Tochigi City FC was declared the representative for Tochigi Prefecture based on its top amateur ranking, and the J3’s Gainare Tottori has been selected to represent Tottori Prefecture.
While there are still nearly eight months to go before the tournament’s scheduled Jan. 1 final, its status will likely remain in a state of flux until the J. League determines its new schedule.
One radical proposal could see that schedule resume as late as August or September.
According to a Saturday report by Sponichi, several officials — including some representing at least one Kanto-area club — have proposed the league temporarily adopt a fall-spring schedule, mirroring that of European leagues.
A fall-spring format has long been touted by Japan Football Association officials as a way to avoid play during hot and humid summers and align the country with the international transfer market.
The J. League has repeatedly pushed back on such proposals, citing the undue burden such a schedule would place on northern clubs that regularly have to deal with heavy snowfall.
But the situation may leave the league without any choice but to finish the 2020 season in 2021, forcing clubs to restructure contracts that would normally expire at the end of the year.
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