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After 20 months of navigating the coronavirus pandemic with drastically reduced attendances and strict limits on active support, the J. League is optimistic that a path to normality is in sight.

Saturday’s Levain Cup final served as one of the biggest tests yet for Japan’s professional soccer league, which has seen clubs struggle financially due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

With a state of emergency in place over much of Japan during 2021, average per-game attendance in the first division stood at 5,862 at the end of October — an increase of 1.1% over 2020’s final average but still well below 2019’s record 20,751.

Officials are optimistic that they will be able to raise that figure in the remaining month of the J1 campaign as October’s transitional attendance limits lapse, allowing clubs to open half of their seats to the general public. Sales above 50% will be allowed through the use of “VT seats,” which require proof of completed vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test administered within 72 hours of kickoff.

Saturday’s game at Saitama Stadium was the largest implementation thus far of the VT seat pilot, with 10,000 VT tickets allocated on top of the 10,000 that were sold to the general public.

The J. League allotted 10,000 tickets for Saturday's final to fans with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. | DAN ORLOWITZ
The J. League allotted 10,000 tickets for Saturday’s final to fans with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Data provided by the J. League, which implemented VT seats at six other games in October, showed that over 95% of fans purchasing those tickets provided proof of vaccination rather than negative tests, suggesting that the percentage of vaccinated fans attending those games could exceed Japan’s national average of 70%.

The league’s strenuous efforts to prevent the spread of the virus gave fans supporting finalists Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka confidence to travel to the Kanto region for the game — the kind of trip that away fans have been unable to take for much of the last two seasons while emergency measures were in effect.

“Today’s my first time coming to Kanto from Nagoya since the start of the pandemic,” Grampus supporter Kenichi Tanaka told The Japan Times. “It’s such a rare opportunity because a title is on the line, and I’ve been vaccinated, so I felt safe coming.

“Everyone’s wearing masks and they’re checking temperatures and vaccination records. The J. League’s being very careful with how it handles its countermeasures.”

Entrance for VT ticket holders on Saturday appeared to go smoothly, with fans taking an average of 30 seconds to be processed. Further improvement will likely hinge on the emergence of a digital solution for displaying vaccination and testing information, similar to the mobile applications that are already in wide use overseas.

The final was the first soccer game attended in person by Grampus supporter Kenichi Tanaka since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. | DAN ORLOWITZ
The final was the first soccer game attended in person by Grampus supporter Kenichi Tanaka since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. | DAN ORLOWITZ

The J. League has decided against adding such a feature to its official mobile app, instead allowing clubs to choose which verification app they use. Kashima Antlers became the first to adopt one in early October when it signed on with Wakupass, an upcoming service that has also gained the support of APA Hotels and travel agency HIS.

“We believe it would be best if a widely adopted solution emerges and we’ve expressed that to government officials,” said Masashi Imoto, a member of the J. League’s coronavirus response group. “From practical and financial perspectives it’s not feasible for us to implement those features in our own app.”

Inside the stadium, researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) continued extensive studies on coronavirus-related risks that began late in the 2020 season. The institute has used a variety of cameras and sensors to monitor crowd densities, adherence to mask requirements, carbon dioxide levels and volume levels.

Data collected at the six league games in October showed that between 93% and 95% of fans wore masks during games, while the overwhelming majority of noise generated by fans came from drums or clapping — the only two methods through which fans are allowed to support the players while reducing the spread of virus-carrying particles.

Although an increasing number of fans have called for active support to return as it has in Europe and the Americas, J. League officials have erred on the side of caution, saying they are awaiting guidance from medical experts on ways in which cheering can be reintroduced.

Cameras pointed toward the stands at Saitama Stadium allowed researchers to track the percentage of fans adhering to mask requirements. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Cameras pointed toward the stands at Saitama Stadium allowed researchers to track the percentage of fans adhering to mask requirements. | DAN ORLOWITZ

“When you celebrate a goal it comes from the heart, and it hurts to have to hold that in,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said. “Bringing back active support is going to be the final step for us, and we want to make sure it’s done safely.

“The next part of that might be to allow flags to be waved again, and if home treatment for COVID-19 is approved maybe we’ll be able to look at allowing fans to cheer.

“We can’t open that door all the way immediately, but I hope we can continue to be leaders in Japanese society and prove what can be done.”

That Murai spoke to reporters in person for the first time since Feb. 25, 2020 — when he announced the suspension of all J. League competitions in the face of the initial spread of the virus in Japan — is a clear sign of confidence that league officials see light at the end of the tunnel.

The 62-year-old, who will step down in March after eight years in charge of the league, credited fans for the patience they have shown in accepting restrictions on support as well as social distancing requirements.

“Japan may be the only place in the world where fans have been able to generate such a great atmosphere just by clapping,” Murai said. “I’m incredibly grateful to our fans for creating that environment.”

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