The players will be back.
The games will count.
But for the foreseeable future, much of the J. League’s usual splendor will be absent from the matchday experience as the league implements a raft of countermeasures aimed at preventing coronavirus infections among players, officials and fans.
The extensive lists of protocols, totaling 70 pages, include PCR tests for players and team staff every two weeks and a number of new rules for players, coaches and other officials to follow when training or traveling.
The league’s guidelines were developed based on recommendations from medical experts advising the joint coronavirus task force launched by the J. League and NPB soon after the pneumonia-causing virus forced the suspension of both leagues.
Among the measures being taken is the establishment of a unified testing center that will be overseen by the league known as the JCTC. A negative PCR test will be required in order to be registered for a match, with referees to undergo the same testing regimen.
While clubs will be obligated to announce if any players, staff or their respective family members test positive while the league is in session, they will not be required to publish the names of those infected.
Most pre-match ceremonies such as the display of the club flags, handshakes and pennant exchanges will not take place, and players and coaches will stand two meters apart for group photos.
On the pitch, handshakes, hugs and uniform exchanges will be forbidden, while physical distancing will be requested during goal celebrations. In the early rounds of the restart, players will be forbidden from sharing water bottles, with players encouraged to cool off their bodies (but not their faces) with sponges dipped in ice water.
Unlike South Korea’s K-League, which has allowed clubs to hang fan-made banners and flags in the stands even during closed-door games, the J. League will not allow such displays in order to reduce the number of interactions between fans and club staff.
“When we accept flags and banners from fans, it becomes a question of whether or not they’ve properly been disinfected,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai told reporters earlier this week. “It’s a difficult decision to make but we hope fans will understand it’s a matter of safety.”
Fans are expected to be allowed back in stadiums from July 11, with an upper limit of 5,000 in place until at least the end of the month. Maintaining a physical distance of at least one meter in all directions in the stands will be recommended.
At their discretion, clubs can choose whether to sell tickets to the public or only to season ticket holders and fan club members. In July, fans will be asked not to attend away games to reduce matchday-related travel.
Should the rate of infections in Japan continue to decline, attendance limits could rise to half of a venue’s overall capacity from Aug. 1, and home clubs would be allowed to establish a section for visiting supporters. However, capacities would ultimately be determined by the home clubs in accordance with local and prefectural regulations.
“As a league we want to admit as many fans as possible,” said the J. League’s Shoji Fujimura, one of four project leaders involved in establishing coronavirus-related policies, on Friday. “We’re setting the maximum (of 50 percent) and the clubs can work within that.”
Fans will be asked to remain in their seats during the match and to refrain from leading chants, singing, clapping, waving scarves or using megaphones.
That said, club-arranged efforts to fill empty seats will be allowed, opening the door for “cardboard fans” bearing the likenesses of real fans, similar to what has been done by some European clubs, to be displayed.
Even after fans return, they won’t be able to enjoy most of the trappings of a usual J. League matchday. Only nonalcoholic drink sales will be allowed in the stands before Aug. 1, when food and merchandise sales will begin. The league’s famous mascots won’t be allowed to roam the concourses, but will be allowed on the pitch.
Among the hardest hit entities by the new restrictions will be the country’s soccer media, which includes dozens of newspapers and established websites in addition to a veritable army of freelance writers and columnists.
However, the league has determined that a maximum of 25 writers, 16 photographers and seven television crews will be allowed into each match, with all required to log their temperatures daily in the preceding two weeks.
Members of the media will no longer have access to working rooms, but instead, will be required to go directly to their seats after checking in. Even should a player run toward the stands while celebrating a goal, photographers will not be allowed to leave their seats in order to follow them.
Post-match press conferences will take place on Zoom — with writers unable to go to the stadium allowed to participate — and will feature managers and two players from each team. They’ll have a limited amount of time to answer questions, as members of the media will have to vacate the stadium an hour after the final whistle.
The J. League’s first division is currently scheduled to restart on July 4. One week earlier on June 27, the second division will resume while the third division will play its opening round.