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Throughout a historically turbulent season, J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai has overseen the league’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, working to ensure the health and safety of its players, coaches, officials and fans.

Murai’s seventh year in charge began with what would eventually become four months of suspended play as the country reacted to the growing COVID-19 crisis. In addition to securing financial support for the league and its 56 clubs, Murai worked closely with NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito, forming a joint coronavirus task force that helped both leagues form guidelines for safely resuming play in June.

The unexpected crisis came after a historic 2019 J. League season that saw record turnout in all three divisions, with more international attention than ever focused on the league following the arrival of foreign stars such as Vissel Kobe midfielder Andres Iniesta and Consadole Sapporo playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin.

In an extensive interview with The Japan Times shortly before the conclusion of the 2020 season in mid-December, Murai discussed the decisions taken in the pandemic’s early days, how fans cooperated with rules prohibiting songs or chants, and the financial state of the league and its clubs.

It’s been a very long year for you.

It was tough. In 2019, the J. League recorded its highest-ever attendance. It was a great year. We expected 2020 to be even better, both on the pitch and on the business side of things. But we stumbled because of the coronavirus.

That said, we have been able to play all of our league matches. The Levain Cup final won’t take place until the new year. There’s a lot of countries where leagues have had to play without fans, and a lot of countries where games were canceled, so I’m relieved we’ve been able to get to where we are.

The coronavirus started to make headlines early in the year, but through the end of January preparations for the new season were going as usual. When did you first start to realize it wouldn’t be a normal campaign?

On Feb. 8 we had the Fuji Xerox Super Cup between the J. League first division and Emperor’s Cup winners at Saitama Stadium. I was on the pitch to shake hands with the players before the match. Standing there listening to the performance of the national anthem, when I looked at the main stand a lot of fans were already wearing masks.

The Diamond Princess was docked in Yokohama, and there had been news reports about the coronavirus spreading aboard the ship, but seeing so many people wearing masks that day I thought “this year is going to be different.”

On Feb. 21-23 we held the opening round of the J1 and J2, and up until that point we’d managed to play games with the cooperation of the clubs. Up until about Feb. 20, I was worried, but thought we might be okay. Then the tone of the government’s statements shifted rapidly and we realized we wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Do you think holding that opening round was the correct decision?

We held the Super Cup, and every club had secured disinfectant as well as masks for their staff. All the preparations were in order. It wasn’t unreasonable to hold the first round and I don’t think we were mistaken in doing so.

Rather, when we made the decision to suspend before the second round we became the first major event in the country to shut down.

The government’s request to refrain from holding events came a day later, and the decision to close schools was made a day after that. I think we were prepared to hold Round 1 and then just as prepared to quickly call off Round 2.

It ended up being a four-month suspension. Did you always believe you’d be able to hold a full season?

The initial decision (on Feb. 25) was made because of the Levain Cup round the following day and Round 2 that weekend. The government called it a “critical moment” on the evening of Feb. 24.

If the next one or two weeks were that critical, I thought it would be right for us to suspend the league for two weeks. (First) we thought if we waited two weeks, then we thought if we waited a bit more … but eventually we’d postponed the league five times without resuming.

It’s been 10 months since the start of the season and right now, at the end of 2020, is when Japan is experiencing its highest rate of infections. At the time, we didn’t think the virus would spread as much as it did.

J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai leaves a news conference after announcing the suspension of the J. League season due to the coronavirus on Feb. 25. | KYODO
J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai leaves a news conference after announcing the suspension of the J. League season due to the coronavirus on Feb. 25. | KYODO

Are you happy with how the clubs handled everything, given the relatively low number of infections?

We published 150 pages of guidelines. It’s a thick report. There are a lot of detailed rules, down to how they should shower in the locker rooms, how they should exchange towels, how to do laundry. We had guidelines on training, starting with individual training and moving to group and team sessions with rules for each step, and the clubs did well to follow those rules.

The fans and supporters cooperated and adjusted their supporting styles until the end of the season. And it’s because of all of that that we were able to resume play.

Are you worried that restrictions on active support (including a ban on chants and songs) will continue in 2021?

What’s difficult is that right now we don’t have a vaccine yet in Japan. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare hasn’t made any firm announcements on approvals. If infections increase, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions will be vulnerable, and we can’t allow ourselves, as organizers of games with tens of thousands of people attending, to become the cause of infections spreading. So we have to ascertain the status of vaccines and other treatment methods while considering how to moderate supporting styles.

Right now I think we have to continue asking attendees to space themselves out and support their team while refrain from cheering loudly and spreading droplets.

That said, there’s no replacement for active support in soccer and I understand the frustration of the fans. The fans have worked hard to come up with alternatives like clapping and holding banners and gate (two-stick) flags. I understand the effort they’ve made and I’m grateful to them.

One of the more remarkable developments this year has been the J.League’s close collaboration with NPB, considering how soccer and baseball have often been rivals in Japan. Will that relationship continue even post-coronavirus?

I think so.

For many years we focused on free-to-air TV broadcasts. But in the last few years we’ve shown our games on (sports streaming service) DAZN. One benefit of DAZN is that each viewer is connected to the server. We know who’s watching what games on what device and for how long. We know how many people are watching both baseball and soccer and we’ve been able to analyze all this data.

As a result, it may be obvious, but people who love the unscripted drama that is sports will watch — and be moved — by high school baseball, or sumo, or rugby, or the Olympics, or the World Cup. We now understand that fans of sports other than soccer also watch the J. League. And because of that, we understand that we’re better off as a league not by competing for the same fans, but by trying to raise the overall number of sports fans.

That’s what we understand by analyzing the customer data we get from internet broadcasts. Whether it’s baseball, or basketball, or rugby, we want to have deeper collaborations with other sports.

The league is surviving financially, but some clubs are struggling.

Rather than aim for big profits and then paying (a lot of) taxes, the clubs are trying to not necessarily go into the red, but spend as much as they can on the players. The profits are very small — that’s how our clubs are operating.

Under normal circumstances, the clubs know before the season how many fans to expect, they’ve secured sponsors and they know how much they’re able to invest in their players. That management is relatively stable. But then because of the coronavirus, crowds are reduced to zero or 50% capacity, and the numbers are short compared to a normal year and the club loses money.

This season, 80% of clubs are in the red. Some clubs’ finances are coming under pressure as a result and some could enter insolvency. They are in a difficult position, operations-wise. Lots of people and businesses across Japan are struggling, and the J. League is also in a difficult situation. It’s going to take time for us to recover from this.

The J. League's second division resumed in late June behind closed doors, with the top flight restarting in early July. | REUTERS
The J. League’s second division resumed in late June behind closed doors, with the top flight restarting in early July. | REUTERS

A lot of smaller clubs in particular are struggling, and they will have a harder time enduring the pandemic than larger clubs. Is there any concern that such smaller clubs might not bounce back in the aftermath?

Across Japan we have clubs in 40 prefectures. Over the last 28 years, each club has taken root in its local community. J. League clubs take the name of their local area, not their owners or sponsors — they’ve established roots in their communities.

They aren’t all big clubs, but the small clubs can also form very close relationships with local authorities, municipalities and fans in a way that only small clubs can. We have 57 clubs, and until now we haven’t had a single club collapse.

I know a lot of clubs are holding on despite losing sponsors, and I recognize they’re working hard. As a league, we’re not reducing the amount of equal distribution payments, and we’ve set it up so that if a club’s financial situation becomes difficult they can receive loans. We’re doing everything we can. Next season, there may be individual situations that need to be dealt with at certain clubs, but I believe as a whole our operations will continue.

Given the circumstances, is it fair to say the league won’t see any big signings for 2021?

I’m not sure. The global market, for example in Europe, is being greatly affected by the pandemic. Broadcast rights are shifting from cable and satellite to internet, even in Europe. The broadcast market could change a lot.

Will clubs be able to sign players with the same amount of financial power? I think the standard for salaries will change. The Japanese market isn’t growing but it’s stable enough that we may be able to accept players.

We may not have the financial clout to sign the really top-class players or big names, but I think we can still acquire some very interesting, attractive players. Compared to the rest of the world I think we’re in a very healthy place financially.

This is the first in a three-part series.

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