In this most unusual of seasons, the J. League has had to grapple with two large and disruptive forces that have threatened to severely disrupt its best-laid plans.
The first, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has largely been managed after the league suspended its season for four months and rolled out a litany of guidelines and procedures intended to protect players, team officials and fans from the risk of infection.
The other, the Asian Football Confederation and its dismal handling of the Asian Champions League, has proven more difficult to cope with.
The challenges facing Asian soccer’s governing body during the pandemic are unenviable: With 47 members separated into five regions and eight time zones — to say nothing of the countless cultures and geopolitical disputes contained within — it’s not easy to keep the continent’s soccer competitions running smoothly at the best of times, and that’s before you even get into the current global situation.
In the chaos and confusion of late February and early March, as ACL games featuring Chinese clubs were postponed and the competition was eventually suspended altogether, the question was always at the back of observers’ minds: Once sports do resume in Asia, how will international competitions be managed?
The AFC’s answer was to kick the can down the road, declaring in early June that the ACL would indeed go on, somehow. The J. League, not knowing when the group stage might take place, released its new schedule ahead of the top flight’s resumption on July 4.
It took just five days for that schedule to be undone as the AFC released its new calendar. With the East Zone’s group stage and round of 16 taking place from Oct. 16 to Nov. 4 and the final set for Dec. 5, the J. League had little choice but to reschedule several Yokohama Marinos, Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo games for any spare Wednesdays available, leaving those teams with weeks of short-rest fixtures.
In the end that was all for naught. The AFC’s latest decision last Thursday to again reschedule the East Zone’s group and knockout stages has thrown yet another wrench into the J. League’s domestic schedule, which is already under pressure to finish its first division in time for its representatives to compete in the Emperor’s Cup.
Now, according to a Friday report by Sponichi, Japan’s three ACL representatives may be forced to split into two squads, with one traveling to a centralized venue (likely in Qatar) for the ACL and the other contesting the J1 back in Japan.
As it stands, the remainder of the ACL — the Nov. 15-Dec. 13 East Zone group and knockout stages as well as the Dec. 19 final — overlaps with the final six rounds of the J1 campaign.
With the J1 champion and runner-up scheduled to join the Emperor’s Cup semifinals on Dec. 29, there simply isn’t enough time to rearrange the 14 matches overlapping the East Zone’s tournament — or the two additional games the potential ACL finalist would miss.
The situation is a frustrating one for managers who not only have to rotate their squads for weeks of short-rest games, but could now have to split them in two during a crucial stretch of the season.
“How will we deal with these overlapping schedules?” asked Vissel manager Thorsten Fink on Sept. 11, according to Nikkan. “I don’t know if we’re going to cram all of our matches in before or after (Dec. 19), but it’s a difficult and unfair schedule for us.”
Meanwhile, the ACL’s West Zone has already resumed this week in Doha, albeit without United Arab Emirates’ Al Wahda — forced to withdraw from the tournament after a cluster infection left the team unable to travel. The West semifinal will be played on Oct. 3, giving the winner 11 weeks to prepare for the Dec. 19 final against an East team that will have just finished a month-long gauntlet.
Should Japan’s three teams go ahead with fielding two squads, they’ll be faced with dilemmas that go beyond the logistical. Do the team’s strongest players go to Qatar, where they could potentially win the continental title? Do they stay in Japan and contest the J1, or at least aim for a spot in next year’s ACL? Or would Marinos, Vissel or Tokyo attempt to fight on both fronts?
If any of the three clubs decide to essentially abandon their J1 campaign, it could have an outsized impact on the title chase. Current leader Kawasaki Frontale plays Marinos on Nov. 28, while fourth-place Nagoya Grampus and fifth-place Kashima Antlers each have a pair of games against ACL clubs. That those teams might face what are essentially reserve sides might not sit well with supporters of rival clubs.
The AFC’s decision to push the ACL through seems driven more by commercial interests than anything else, especially in light of the second-tier AFC Cup’s cancellation due to coronavirus-related logistical issues. The ACL already struggles to draw crowds in East Asia for a number of reasons, and the confederation’s poor treatment of its clubs in the region will surely be remembered by the leagues, teams and fans who are supposed to consider competing in Asia to be a high honor.
By canceling the ACL — or coming up with an alternative solution, such as a knockout tournament in January — the AFC could have proven how serious it is about maintaining the integrity of both international and domestic soccer in Asia.
Unfortunately, by forcing the tournament through in its current state, the AFC has shown its lack of interest in preserving either.