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The J. League isn’t ridding itself of COVID-19 anytime soon.

This week saw the first postponements of the season after a cluster of infections emerged within the Gamba Osaka camp, expanding to five players and one team staffer as of Thursday night.

After one player reported a fever on Tuesday morning and was found to have tested positive on Tuesday night, the rest of the team — including the squad that had already traveled east ahead of Wednesday’s first-division tie against Nagoya Grampus — were tested, with two players and one staffer returning positives early Wednesday morning.

An additional player who did not travel with the team also tested positive on Wednesday, resulting in the Grampus game being called off less than two hours before kickoff.

Another round of tests conducted Thursday resulted in the discovery of a fifth player’s infection. With the extent of the virus’s spread within the club still not clearly established, league officials moved to cancel Saturday’s J1 game between Gamba and Kashima Antlers.

Following Gamba’s designation as an infection cluster by Osaka Prefecture, it’s unclear when the team will be able to return to play. Similar designations last year forced Sagan Tosu and Kashiwa Reysol to sit out two weeks before getting back on the pitch.

Gamba has a packed schedule this month, with games on March 10, 13, 17 and 21, and is scheduled to contest its Asian Champions League group stage games in late April and early May.

If the list of postponed fixtures grows, Gamba could potentially become the first test case of a new J. League rule that assigns forfeits to the team “responsible” for a game’s cancellation if it cannot be rescheduled.

Asked whether any safety issues could have arisen during Gamba’s season opener at Vissel Kobe on Feb. 27, club president Tadashi Ono told reporters Wednesday that “Scientifically, you can’t say it was completely (safe),” according to Soccer Digest. “They will administer their own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and we take responsibility for that.”

Grampus fans who had already arrived at Toyota Stadium by the time Wednesday’s game was called off didn’t leave disappointed — the club rushed to prepare an open training session at the suggestion of Italian manager Massimo Ficcadenti.

“With the game canceled so close to kickoff, I thought we could create something special for everyone who had made the effort to come,” Ficcadenti said in a mini-documentary of the day’s developments that was posted to the club’s website.

Concussion fears

The sight of Urawa Reds rookie Yudai Fujiwara being stretchered off after Tuesday’s Levain Cup game against host Shonan Bellmare has raised questions regarding the team’s concussion protocols.

Fujiwara, who fell to the pitch after taking an incidental elbow to the jaw from Bellmare striker Naoki Ishihara late in the second half, appeared dazed after getting back onto his feet and fell again following a corner kick, drawing the attention of referee Masaaki Iemoto.

Urawa’s medal staff escorted Fujiwara to the sideline and examined him in front of the bench, but the 18-year-old eventually returned to the pitch to play out the final minutes of the scoreless draw — despite a new rule in place that would have allowed manager Ricardo Rodriguez to send out a “concussion substitute” even though he’d already used his five swaps. Fujiwara fell to his knees after the final whistle and was soon carried off the pitch.

Urawa Reds defender Yudai Fujiwara (left) contends for the ball on Tuesday at Lemon Gas Stadium in the city of Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. | KYODO
Urawa Reds defender Yudai Fujiwara (left) contends for the ball on Tuesday at Lemon Gas Stadium in the city of Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. | KYODO

Rodriguez told a Friday news conference that while he had been preparing to replace Fujiwara with veteran Tomoya Ugajin, the youngster had indicated that he was fit to continue.

“After he took the blow to the face, (Fujiwara) said he was able to keep playing and went back on. When he collapsed after the game I worried that it might have been a serious injury, but at the time there was no concern of a concussion.

“Of course we have to put our players’ safety first. But at the time he showed that he was able to play and we determined that there wasn’t a concussion.”

On Friday, Urawa announced that while Fujiwara had tested negative for a concussion, he is expected to require four weeks of recovery following surgery to repair a fracture in his left eye socket.

Maezono reprises PSA

The J. League has called upon a familiar face in its ongoing campaign against cyberbullying.

In a 30-second video released Thursday evening, retired attacker Masakiyo Maezono describes cyberbullying as “awful” and “uncool.”

Involvement in the PSA is familiar ground for the former Japan international, who 25 years ago appeared in a famous anti-bullying commercial produced by Ad Council Japan.

“Twenty-five years ago, I said bullying isn’t cool. But bullying hasn’t gone away,” Maezono says in the video, before calling out hate speech, discrimination and anonymous attacks online.

Incidents of online harassment aimed at J. League players have increased dramatically in recent years, leaving clubs struggling to respond. Such comments are often directed at foreign players or Japanese players of mixed heritage.

“Online harassment is becoming an increasingly big problem in the sports world and society in general,” Maezono told Oricon in a behind-the-scenes video filmed at Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki. “It’s a modern version of the problem I spoke out against 25 years ago.”

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