When viewers across the world tune into Saturday’s Levain Cup final, some may recognize a voice that for nearly a decade has carried as one of the J. League’s leading advocates.
On the English-language call of the decider at Tokyo’s National Stadium will be Ben Maxwell, who since 2012 has provided weekly coverage of the J. League as well as Japan’s national teams on “The J-Talk Podcast.”
Across 340 episodes on the podcast’s main feed, Maxwell has shepherded international listeners through the ins and outs of a league that until this season remained largely inaccessible to fans outside of Japan.
“Once (the J. League) gets in your blood it becomes a part of your life, even if it’s completely different to what you’ve experienced in your home country,” Maxwell told From the Spot. “I think the atmosphere in the ground plays a huge part. It’s so inclusive. You very rarely, if ever, feel unsafe. Your team hopefully puts on a decent performance, but if not you know you’re going to hear a lot of singing and enjoy the experience. It’s a combination of all those things.”
A longtime FC Tokyo supporter, Maxwell’s foray into podcasting began in 2011 with “Gas Talk,” a collaboration with this writer that covered the capital club’s year in the second division and eventual Emperor’s Cup triumph.
“I didn’t realize what I and we were starting, but it was part of being in love with your club,” Maxwell said. “We didn’t think this would take us anywhere, but we wanted to talk about our club and share that to people who might be interested in listening.”
Positive feedback saw Maxwell’s focus expand to the J. League as a whole, turning into a weekly recap of the league’s ins and outs.
The show has grown to feature a rotating cast of over 40 guests, most of whom are active participants in the league’s English-language fan community. In recent years, J-Talk has even welcomed Consadole Sapporo striker Jay Bothroyd and former Nadeshiko Japan forward Ami Otaki.
“(Our guests) are all people who have given their time because they love the J.League and they’re interested either in a particular team or the league as a whole,” Maxwell said. “I wouldn’t call myself an authority (on the J. League); I want my guests to be the driving force of each episode. We want to spread the word and we want to have people who are as passionate about the J.League as we are.”
After a 2017 hiatus for the birth of his second child, Maxwell returned with a vengeance in 2018. The May 2019 launch of a Patreon account allowed the show to expand its coverage with “J-Talk Extra Time,” a regular recap of the J. League’s second and third divisions hosted by bloggers Jon Steele and Stuart Smith. Sam Robson, an analyst for statistics firm Football Radar, officially joined the main feed as a co-host in February after years as a regular guest.
“Sam has to watch every game in full for his day job, so he’s always much more up in terms of what happened and things I might have missed on highlights packages,” said Maxwell, who juggles the podcast alongside his English-teaching career and parental duties. “I’m a creature of habit; I’m just into the routine of getting prepped and doing it, and I think Sam’s a similar kind of person.”
Despite the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic — including weekly episodes throughout the league’s four-month suspension — J-Talk has flourished in 2020.
While early efforts to bring J-Talk under the J. League’s umbrella as an “official” podcast were eventually unsuccessful, the show’s audience continues to grow thanks to the league’s increased international exposure, which took a significant leap forward this year with expanded social media content and a raft of new overseas broadcasting deals.
“You could definitely argue that it’s taken them a long time to do what they’re doing now, but I think they deserve a lot of credit because they’ve really decided to go for it this year,” Maxwell said. “Hopefully for international supporters this was a watershed year and things will only get a lot better from here.”
Saturday will see Maxwell return to the broadcast booth for the first time since Jan. 1, 2017, when he called the final of the Emperor’s Cup for WakuWaku Japan. He had previously commented on league and cup games for the Southeast Asian television channel, which is operated by Japanese broadcaster Sky Perfect.
“If I hadn’t started the podcast eight years ago, it’s something that wouldn’t be possible,” said Maxwell. “To have been asked by the J.League is a huge responsibility, but one that I am rapt to be considered for and look forward to tackling.”
A former Tokyo season-ticket holder, Maxwell is prepared to put his preferences aside when the capital club seeks its third league cup trophy against Kashiwa Reysol, whose overseas following has expanded thanks to the goalscoring heroics of Kenya international Michael Olunga.
“I’m well aware that there will be a lot of Reysol supporters tuning in from all over the world, so I will leave my blue and red glasses at home,” Maxwell said. “I’ll be as neutral as the J.League would want me to be. I will call the game as I see it and I will react as vociferously to a Reysol goal as I will a Tokyo goal.
“It won’t be the full-bore, pre-COVID J. League experience, but it will still be a special one and the supporters at the National Stadium will make it a special occasion.”
While it will be a while yet before overseas fans can attend a J. League match in person, Maxwell hopes that Saturday’s clash — available to viewers outside Japan via the J. League’s official YouTube channel — will be a fitting advertisement for the league, even with fans unable to sing under restrictions intended to prevent COVID-19 infections.
“You’re going to see an atmosphere and occasion that is unique in football. You will see entertaining football, you will be entertained by the atmosphere and all the stimuli around you, and you’ll have a great time,” Maxwell said of the “normal” J. League matchday experience.
“Whether you’re watching at home or at the ground … it’s much more real (in person), but the J.League is a unique league that we love and more people are always welcome on the bus.”
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