Quixotic feuding over a European-style schedule for J-League must end

The multi-year quest by the JFA to impose a Fall-Spring schedule on the J-League accomplishes nothing at a time when the two organisations should be cooperating
By Dan Orlowitz | Japanese Football Editor, Goal.com International

Japan is said to have four seasons, and Japanese football is no different. With autumn comes title races and tournament championships. Winter is meant for welcomes, both for J-rookies and experienced players talented enough to travel to Europe. Spring brings the start of the new J-League season and all the potential it holds.

And summer? Summer is marked not by fireworks festivals or yukata, but instead yet another round in the continuing war of words between the league and the Japanese Football Association (JFA) over proposals to adopt a European-style autumn to spring competition format.

The proposal should be familiar to all reading this, because we’ve heard it all before. Whether with current chairman Junji Ogura or his predecessor Motoaki Inukai, the JFA has pushed the issue for years despite the consistently strong objections of the teams, players association, and supporters. And the J-League has pushed back just as hard, rejecting the idea year after year.

The JFA has their reasons; most of them are based around the well-being of the country’s national team. The next three years will prove difficult for the two sides to align their schedules as Japan participate in next summer's Confederations Cup and East Asian Cup, as well as compete in the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Asian Cup.

The arguments against the proposal are as numerous as they are valid: northern clubs such as Consadole Sapporo, Vegalta Sendai, and Montedio Yamagata would suffer from a lack of proper practice facilities and the financial strain that would surely come as a result of stadium renovations. As the temperature dropped, so would attendances; that much can be seen from this season’s first 10 fixtures as an unusually prolonged run of poor weather kept supporters away in droves. Family-friendly events, often a huge summer draw for clubs, would need to be scaled back or cancelled. Hundreds of player and sponsor contracts based around a 12-month season would need to be revised.

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The tug-of-war between league and FA is not unique; European clubs have long clashed with Uefa and Fifa over the number of international matches and call-up requirements. In countries such as Italy, partisanship often makes supporting one’s club and one’s national team mutually exclusive concepts. But in Japan, where domestic football must fight not only baseball but also European football for the attention and financial patronage of sports fans, it’s a needless sibling rivalry that does nothing to advance the growth of the game within the country.

For all their talk of what they believe is best for the sport, the JFA has been consistently blind to the fact that without a strong domestic game, Japan would not be considered contenders on the world stage, nor would they have the strong following they presently enjoy. National team players do not spring forth from the ground fully formed; they are raised and trained by J-League clubs. National team supporters are the same in that they most often learn to appreciate the beautiful game on warm Saturday evenings at their local stadium before making the trip to Saitama Stadium to support Samurai Blue.

"The JFA has been consistently blind to the fact that without a strong domestic game, Japan would not be considered contenders on the world stage, nor would they have the strong following they presently enjoy"

The JFA's previous and current chairmen have made a mockery of their position by continuing to push the issue; Inukai’s past claims that “football is a winter sport” were ridiculous at best, and Ogura walks a dangerous line by treating the league as a subordinate organisation.

That said, the clubs aren’t blameless. Bickering over releasing players for the national team or Under-23 duty makes them look just as petty at times, and the lack of affordable television access to live matches is a continual source of frustration for many.

The most frustrating part about this saga is that there are any number of larger, tangible issues faced by the league that deserve attention, from the quality of Japanese officiating and lack of accountability on controversial decisions as well as the ensured financial stability of J-League clubs among them. With conditional promotion and relegation between J2 and the JFL beginning this season, the introduction of J3 could be around the corner. These are all far more important than yet another scheduling debate.

This sad kabuki theatre has gone on for long enough. For the sake of the game, the JFA and J-League need to put an end to this farce of an argument before they risk undoing two decades of progress.

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