The J. League’s birthday celebrations this year will be quieter than usual, even as the league begins plotting a July return.
Friday’s scheduled first-division fixture between Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka would have marked the 27th anniversary of the league’s first-ever game between Verdy Kawasaki and Yokohama Marinos on May 15, 1993, at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
Instead, the league remains in limbo, with players at most clubs unable to train due to the national state of emergency caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It’s the first time the league will celebrate “J. League Day” in a state of suspended animation — a fact that was not lost on league chairman Mitsuru Murai as he concluded Monday’s press briefing following a meeting of the league’s executive committee.
“It’s the first time we won’t have any competition on J. League Day, but even as we contend with the new coronavirus, players and club staff are working hard every day,” Murai said.
While it doesn’t look like the J. League will be catching up to its fellow leagues in South Korea, Taiwan or Germany anytime soon, Monday’s joint task force with NPB, Japan’s pro baseball league, did yield cautious optimism that both circuits can begin planning for what comes next.
The task force has generated 40 pages of guidelines for what a return to play might look like, giving the two leagues a clear roadmap for when the state of emergency is lifted.
For major metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, which have seen significant declines in new infections, that could come as early as May 21, when the government’s panel of medical experts convene. Their proclamations should provide plenty of guidance to the J. League-NPB task force, which meets the day after.
“The biggest parameters ahead of a restart will be the number of new cases and the number of beds that are occupied,” Murai said. “The stress the medical system is under will also be a factor.
“The next step will be hearing the government’s opinion on May 21 and our task force meeting the following day. I think we’ll have an outlook for when (full-squad) training can resume."
Some clubs in regions with low infection counts have resumed training. V-Varen Nagasaki took to the pitch on Monday in three groups at staggered times while fellow second-division side Fagiano Okayama as well as third-division newcomer FC Imabari resumed practice on Tuesday.
“If the region wasn’t healthy we wouldn’t be able to do our work,” said Nagasaki coach Makoto Teguramori, referring to Nagasaki Prefecture’s decision to lift certain restrictions on the use of athletic facilities, according to Kyodo. “We’re grateful to the citizens of Nagasaki for doing their part.”
Clubs offer ticket refunds
With no clear outlook for when fans will be back in the stands, some clubs have taken the weighty step of refunding season tickets, while others have signaled their intent to take similar actions.
The J3’s Imabari, which has yet to play its first J. League game, announced its plan to refund season-ticket holders on May 5, having already seen its first six home games postponed.
FC Tokyo became the first J1 club to take that step Wednesday, while also giving its roughly 10,000 season-ticket holders the option to decline a refund and instead donate the money to the club.
“Season tickets are an incredibly important source of revenue for the club, and with our path forward still unclear this was a difficult decision to make,” said a statement published on FC Tokyo’s homepage.
“Once play resumes, it’s very likely that games may still take place behind closed doors or with restrictions on the number of fans, seating, and supporting styles … we have determined that we cannot offer our members the services we have offered in the past, and we further understand that many will be anxious about going to the stadium, which is why we have decided to offer a full refund.”
Last month, Urawa Reds announced that they were considering refunding season-ticket holders, while Shimizu S-Pulse announced Wednesday that a decision regarding its treatment of season tickets would be made once the league determines its new schedule.
Makino eyes touchline role
Defender Tomoaki Makino may be staying away from the barbershop, but he’s not avoiding his studies.
In a Zoom call with reporters during Golden Week, the Urawa Reds veteran — sporting an uncharacteristically unkempt mop of hair — revealed that as the team remains on hiatus, he’s been taking the Japan Football Association’s Class B coaching license course.
“After I retire I want to become a manager,” Makino said during the May 4 call. “I’ve lived my life playing soccer and next I want to stand pitchside. Watching various managers I’ve gotten lots of ideas for what I want to do and what sort of tactics I’d want to use, so now I have to prepare for that.”
The charismatic 33-year-old, who earned 38 caps for Japan and spent two seasons overseas with Germany’s Koln, has already obtained a Class C license and is working with Urawa’s academy team to complete the practical portion of his studies.
“The B license requires that you understand each position,” Makino said of the Class B course, which is the highest level that active players may take. “We had a seminar on goalkeepers and it was all new to me; I was fascinated by it.”