After prevailing through a litany of restrictions and logistical hurdles to complete the 2020 season, fans might have hoped that the J. League would have an easier time preparing for the 2021 campaign.
The novel coronavirus pandemic, now in its second year, had other plans.
With COVID-19 still far from contained in Japan — which registered its 5,000th death from the virus last weekend — the J. League’s offseason has been fraught with uncertainty and rattled by positive tests across more than a dozen clubs.
The situation has led to a heightened state of caution as teams enter their preseason preparations. The 20 J. League clubs wintering in Okinawa Prefecture, one of 11 prefectural-level authorities including Tokyo covered by the current state of emergency declaration, have closed their training sessions and practice games to the public.
Should the state of emergency be extended by three to four weeks in line with local media reports, the league could be forced to severely restrict attendance to the Feb. 20 Fuji Xerox Super Cup or the first and second-division season openers on Feb. 26-28.
“Nothing’s decided yet (in regard to the state of emergency), but we have prepared for a number of scenarios,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said after Thursday’s meeting of the league’s board of directors. “Practically speaking, we’ve looked at attendance limits, kickoff times and until what time we would be able to keep concession stands open.”
Under government guidelines governing large-scale events, attendance at games played in areas covered by the state of emergency is limited to 5,000 or 50% of venue capacity, whichever is fewer. Tickets for the Super Cup, which will take place at the 63,000-capacity Saitama Stadium, are yet to go on sale as the league evaluates its options.
“Under normal circumstances we would start ticket sales two weeks in advance, but that could change depending on the government’s decision regarding the state of emergency,” Murai said.
“A final decision (on ticket sales) will be made at our next board meeting on Feb. 8. That would only leave 12 days, but depending on what the government does we could accelerate things.”
It’s not just fans hoping to attend the clash between J1 and Emperor’s Cup champion Kawasaki Frontale and dual runner-up Gamba Osaka who are currently in limbo.
Due to border restrictions prohibiting just about anyone other than citizens or current residents from entering Japan, a number of new foreign signings are stuck outside the country waiting for visa applications to be processed.
Once they’re allowed to fly in they will have to complete two weeks of quarantine, further reducing their chances of being fit for the season opener.
Nigerian striker Gabriel Okechukwu, who joined Consadole Sapporo earlier this month, is taking the delay in his stride.
“I was hoping by now to be in Japan, to get started with the team and get used to the city and environment. But we can’t force things,” Okechukwu told From the Spot during a phone interview. “I work out every day, because I need to keep fit. I know I can’t be 100%, but I’m trying as much as I can.
“I speak with (Consadole’s interpreter) every day, and he’s telling me the details about the team. He (helps) me understand everything about the system.”
The 25-year-old, who spent last season at Morocco’s Chabab Mohammedia, says he isn’t worried about arriving in Japan despite the current wave of new infections that has cast doubt on the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s something the whole world is facing, not just Japan. I don’t think I’m really concerned,” he said. “The Japanese government, the clubs, they’re all working to make sure everything gets back to normal. I know when the time is right I’m going to get my visa and I’m going to get started with Sapporo.”
Two more African players, Nigeria’s Chikeluba Ofoedu and Kenya’s Ismael Dunga, are also waiting for their visas after signing with Sagan Tosu.
“We have this challenge of no movement (between countries) and it’s just delaying everything,” said Joshua King Dada, whose Double Diamond Sports agency represents the trio. “For players going to Japan it’s almost impossible because embassies are shut down.”
Even some familiar faces at Consadole may not be on the sidelines for the team’s Feb. 27 season opener against Yokohama FC.
Striker Jay Bothroyd, who contracted COVID-19 while vacationing in his native England, is only midway through his two-week quarantine after arriving in Japan late last week. Meanwhile, manager Mihailo Petrovic is currently hospitalized in Austria after breaking his leg in a fall and undergoing surgery shortly after the New Year.
Other clubs are facing even harsher circumstances for the new season. Tokushima Vortis began their first winter camp last Saturday in Kochi Prefecture without new Spanish manager Dani Poyatos, who is using livestreams of training sessions to evaluate his players and conducting team meetings via Zoom. He may only have days with his squad before their Feb. 27 curtain-raiser against Oita Trinita.
“I don’t think of it as a problem, rather it’s a challenge,” Poyatos told Nikkan Sports on Jan. 16. “I’m motivated and excited. I can’t wait to meet everyone.”
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