The first month of the J. League’s return to play went off — more or less — without a hitch.
The last two weeks have been far bumpier.
In that span, seven players, one team staffer and a part-time employee at a team dorm have tested positive for COVID-19. Two games were postponed as a result of the positive tests, while a third was in question as of Friday and a scheduled national team training camp was canceled entirely.
Although these incidents are far from the level of cluster infections seen in the spring in European soccer — or more recently in Major League Baseball — they are reminders that the situation remains precarious for professional sports leagues attempting to hold their seasons in a country beginning to experience its second wave of infections.
After resuming play on June 27 with the second and third divisions, the J. League managed to avoid any infections among its players until July 24, when Nagoya Grampus defender Kazuya Miyahara tested positive.
Another round of testing led to two more positives the following day — midfielder Shuto Watanabe and a team staffer. With 16 players already in Hiroshima and the team unable to ascertain whether any of them were in close contact with the two newest infections, the league made the decision on the morning of July 26 to postpone the match.
Two more infections were discovered last weekend in the J. League’s second division. One was Machida Zelvia forward Misaki Haruyama, who tested positive upon his Aug. 1 arrival at an Under-19 men’s training camp at the Japan Football Association’s training complex in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture. That led the JFA to cancel the camp entirely, even though participants in the five-day camp entered the hotel in isolation and no others tested positive.
The other came the following day, when results from an Avispa Fukuoka player — later revealed as midfielder Hiroyuki Mae — strongly indicated the possibility of an infection. With those results coming at 5 p.m. — two hours before Avispa’s away game against Omiya Ardija — the decision was made to postpone the fixture.
This week has seen two infections discovered at FC Ryukyu, with defender Tetsuya Chinen being diagnosed Monday and midfielder Shusnuke Motegi, who was connected to Chinen via contact tracing, officially announced Thursday as also having tested positive.
Meanwhile, Tokushima Vortis announced Thursday night that midfielder Shiryu Fujiwara had tested positive after registering a fever earlier in the week. The club tested 50 players and staff on Thursday, and based on those results, which are expected Friday evening, it will work with the league to determine whether its Saturday home game against V-Varen Nagasaki can take place as scheduled.
“The club has been thorough in our efforts to prevent infection, and Fujiwara has done nothing in the last two weeks to raise the concern of local health officials,” Vortis President Kazuhiro Kishida said in a statement. “That he became infected despite the countermeasures we have put in place is a strong reminder of the risks that exist everywhere.”
Even false alarms are starting to impact what happens on the pitch. Sagan Tosu’s 3-2 win over FC Tokyo last Saturday was overshadowed by the revelation that a Tosu player had recorded a fever after arriving in Tokyo the previous night and had been left out of the match day squad.
As the player’s fever occurred after he had recorded a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test last Friday, the decision was made by the league to play on — a call that did not sit well at the time with Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa.
“He wasn’t in the squad, but we didn’t know whether or not the player (if he had been infected) had any close contact with his teammates,” said Hasegawa. “I told my players that I would only use players who were willing to play under these circumstances, but everyone wanted to play in front of our home fans.
“It doesn’t excuse everything, but there was a psychological component to how we didn’t show much fight in the first half. As the manager, I’m responsible for the health and welfare of my players, and it was a difficult decision to send them out to play.”
The incident again raised concerns over the scheduling of the J. League’s centralized tests, with players, team staffers and referees tested every two weeks.
“If the Tosu player had tested positive, it would mean he had gotten infected in the hours since taking the league’s PCR test,” wrote Naohito Fujie for The Page on Sunday. “If he was infected while traveling to Tokyo, or while in the capital, it would represent a higher risk for teams traveling to metropolitan areas.
“That would also mean that the league’s biweekly testing schedule is not enough to match the speed of the outbreak and that testing frequency needs to be increased.”
In response to the Tokyo-Tosu incident, J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said Sunday that he would consider more frequent testing to give peace of mind to players and coaches, as well as implementing the SmartAmp method of PCR testing used by the JFA, which is capable of delivering results in an hour.
“We decided to play the game as scheduled, but we also understand that to a manager the mental aspect is everything,” Murai said. “Testing everyone before each game and only playing those who test negative could resolve some of that uncertainty.”
While the J. League’s coronavirus guidelines could see an update following next week’s meeting of its joint task force with Nippon Professional Baseball, this weekend’s matches will take place under a cloud of rising infections — and controversy over the government’s reluctance to implement national travel restrictions during the Bon holiday period.
But although Okinawa Prefecture’s state of emergency will force Ryukyu to play its home game on Wednesday against Ventforet Kofu behind closed doors, Grampus will host Urawa Reds on Saturday in front of fans despite a similar state of emergency in Aichi Prefecture.
Meanwhile, other clubs have had to crack down on fan behavior. On July 31, Sagan Tosu warned fans not to approach players at airports, train stations or hotels during their transit to away games. One day earlier, Yokohama FC reported several violations of the league’s restrictions at their July home games, promising stricter measures to ward off fans from attempting to bring alcohol into the stadium or cheer during the game.
With fans seemingly starting to chafe at restrictions intended to prevent infections and players themselves catching the virus despite their best efforts, it’s clear the league and its clubs will have a massive challenge ahead as they attempt to play out an already tumultuous season.
“As the league’s first chairman, Saburo Kawabuchi, said, ‘All you can do is think while you’re running,’” Murai told freelance journalist Etsuko Motokawa last month. “A lot of things are going to happen to the league, and we’ll have to face some difficult situations, but soccer won’t go away.”
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