J-League History Part 2: The Early Years

In the second of our five-part J-League History series, Goal looks back at Verdy's early success and the emergence of Brazilian legend Zico as a catalyst for growth
Ten teams competed in the 1993 season. Besides the aforementioned Verdy, Marinos and Antlers, there were three more clubs from the Greater Tokyo area: JEF Ichihara, Urawa Reds, and Yokohama Flugels. Shizuoka prefecture had a great football tradition, and participated with Shimizu S-Pulse, the only team that wasn’t an offspring of a company club.

The other three clubs came from big industrial cities on the Pacific coast: Nagoya Grampus Eight, Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

The most popular club was without any doubt Verdy Kawasaki. Many of their players, such as Kazuyoshi Miura, Nobuhiro Takeda and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, embodied the “rock-star” image that differentiated the J-League from the quasi-martial style of most baseball players.

The first season was structured with two championships, each a round-robin, in which teams would meet home and away, for a total of thirty-six games per club. The winner of the spring championship and the winner of the fall championship will then meet in a two-game final, to determine the season’s ultimate champion.

This unorthodox formula presented a couple of advantages: first of all, it guaranteed an exciting finale in the same fashion Japanese baseball did with its “Nippon Series,” a model most Japanese sports fans were accustomed with.

Moreover, the two-championship system kept the tension high until the end of the season because after the first series, the table was reset and the race for the second spot in the final began from zero.

The double-championship and final game system was in use from 1993 to 2004, with the exception of 1996 (more about that specific year later).

Another interesting early Japanization of the game was that matches had to finish with a winner, no matter what. In a country with a strong martial tradition, battles were expected to end with clear winners and losers.

Thus, whenever a game was tied after 90 minutes, the teams would play two 15-minute extra halves, until a “V-goal” was scored. If the two sides remained deadlocked after two hours of play, the duel would be decided by penalty kicks.

It didn’t matter if 28 shots were needed, as was the case between Nagoya Grampus Eight and Urawa Reds in March 1995: one team had to win!

In 1993, the J-League had permission from FIFA to simply list teams in the table according to their victories, as no points were assigned. Winning 5-0 in 90 minutes, or 1-0 at penalties made no difference.

And speaking of victories, it was Antlers and Verdy who won the two “series” in 1993 and earned the right to play the finals that took place in January 1994 at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

The first match was designed to be a home game for Antlers, but Verdy rather easily won it 2-0. Miura scored the first in the 60th minute, and Brazilian Bismark headed home a corner-kick a few seconds before the end of regulation time.

The return game was, at least on paper, a formality for Verdy, but Antlers dared to disagree. The underdogs were led by Brazilian legend Arthur Coimbra Zico, who, after missing the first final, was in the starting XI. While many Verdy players described playing against the Brazilian champion as a great honour and a booster of motivation, the veteran then at the age of  40, was still a player well above average for the J-League.

In the 38th minute, his teammate Alcindo volleyed a goal for Antlers and reopened the contest. The climax came in the second half. A controversial penalty was awarded after what seemed like a relatively light foul on Verdy’s Brazilian Paulo. This time “Kazu” scored, de facto sealing the victory for his team. However, it was what happened before the fatal kick that entered history.

With Miura ready to take the decisive shot, Zico, still fuming after the decision of the referee, walked to the penalty spot, and unceremoniously spat on the ball. In the turmoil that followed, Zico saw a second yellow card and was forced to leave the game.

Despite the incident, it was time for Verdy Kawasaki to celebrate their first championship. In November, they had also won their second League Cup, now sponsored by Nabisco. As mentioned previously, the oldest J-League competition was used as a test run for the J-League in 1992, and was won, of course, by Verdy.

Kazu won the award as MVP of that season, but he was not the top-scorer. He scored a total of 20 goals, eight shy of Ramon Diaz. In its first year, the league averaged at about 18,000 spectators per game and totaled at over 3.2 million fans.

Verdy’s domination continued in 1994, when again they prevailed in the second series, and defeated Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the final. The following year, 1995, saw the rise of Marinos who finally broke Verdy’s hegemony and defeated them in the final, to claim Yokohama’s first title. Unfortunately dark clouds were at the horizon for Verdy, and for the J-League as well.