Just over three months after suspending all competitions due to the rising coronavirus crisis, the J. League on Friday announced its plan to resume its first division on July 4.
Teams will initially play nearby opponents in order to minimize travel and a host of other countermeasures will be put in place in order to reduce the risk of infections.
The revised dates were approved by the league’s executive committee one week after a panel of medical experts gave the J. League and Nippon Professional Baseball the green light to resume play from mid-June.
While NPB will begin its postponed season on June 19, the J. League will give J1 players five weeks of full-team training in order to rebuild their conditioning.
“Each region has different circumstances,” said J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai. “Hokkaido had the state of emergency in place until recently and the players weren’t able to go outside. Some teams will need time before they can resume full-team training.”
The second and third division will reopen on June 27, one week before the J1. New match schedules for all three divisions will be announced on June 15.
The J. League originally suspended its competitions on Feb. 25, having completed just one round each of the first and second divisions as well as the Levain Cup group stage. The J3 was originally scheduled to open on March 7.
Murai said the league would establish an internal testing center, with players, referees and other officials receiving PCR tests once every two weeks. The league will pay for the tests themselves, which will be carried out by regional testing facilities.
“We want to centralize the testing process within the J. League,” Murai said. “We’ll be contracting people with experience in PCR testing. We don’t have that know-how, so we want to create a team with clinical experience.”
Matches immediately following the resumption of play will be held without fans. This could change from July 11, when clubs will be allowed to admit 50 percent of their stadium’s capacity with an upper limit of 5,000 fans. In August, the ceiling will be raised to 50 percent of stadium capacity, but those plans could be delayed should a second wave of infections hit Japan and force the government to reinstitute stricter countermeasures.
Local media has reported in recent days that the league will be implementing a number of rules involving physical distancing in order to reduce potential infection vectors, including separating players for team photos and assigning individual water bottles.
“The Bundesliga has asked players to refrain from physical contact when celebrating goals, and we have no problem with taking the same measures, said Shoji Fujimura, one of four project leaders involved in establishing coronavirus-related policies. “But during play we want to see normal soccer as much as possible.”
Fujimura added that the J. League will follow the lead of Germany’s Bundesliga in establishing zones within stadiums in order to restrict the number of people in each area.
“We’ll be splitting the stadium into three zones,” said Fujimura. “Zone 1 (on the pitch) will be very strictly policed. Zone 2 and Zone 3 will be separated as much as possible. We’ll be trying to reduce the number of pitchside photographers and ballpersons and make sure we can verify their health.
Rather than refer to games played without fans as mukankyakujiai, a phrase which has previously indicated that stands have been closed as a punitive measure, Murai said the J. League had discussed potential alternatives with other members of the Japan Top League Alliance, a group composed of the country’s main sports leagues.
Murai confirmed that a number of other issues would be discussed by league officials in the coming days, including the use of video assistant referees as well as potential changes to the summer transfer window, which is currently scheduled to run from July 17-Aug. 14.
Officials said that a revised format and schedule for the Levain Cup would be announced at a later date.