The years from 1996 to 2002 can be considered as those of “growth pains.” In fact in this period, and until the arrival of the World Cup in Asia in 2002, the J-League, like the rest of Japanese economy in the same period, experienced a slump.
By 1996 the league now included two more representatives from the Kansai area (Cerezo Osaka, already promoted in 1995, and Kyoto Purple Sanga) and the first club based outside the main Japanese island of Honshu: Avispa Fukuoka, from the city on the northern coast of Kyushu.
With 16 teams now competing, the J-League switched to a single 30-round championship in order to resemble that of the European leagues.
It was a major flop. With the economic bubble bursting, football too seemed to fall out of fashion, and attendance dropped to an average of only 13,353 spectators for a game. Some of the big names, such as Pierre Littbarski (who was playing in the Japan Football League, a semi-professional second division) and Gary Lineker were not around anymore, and Zico had retired too. His Antlers had secured that year’s title, but their supporters seemed to be the only one who fully enjoyed that season without the climax of the finals.
After the first three years of record attendances (1995 totaled almost 6.5m of spectators), enthusiasm petered out and hit rock bottom in 1997 (fewer than 3.5m total). But with attendance reduced to core groups of ‘hardcore’ fans, it was during these years that J-League supporters began to organize in groups that traveled across the country following their clubs with colorful banners, flags and chants that lasted for the whole 90 minutes.
The format quickly reverted to two-stages in 1997, a season that also saw a change in the way points were assigned: winners within 90 minutes were awarded three points, a V-goal victory during the extra time was now worth only two points, while prevailing after penalty shootouts assigned only one point to the winners.
Kashima Antlers had clinched their first title in 1996, at the end of a maturation that had started back in 1992. The other dominant club of that era were another new kid on the block: Jubilo Iwata.
These two powerhouses’ domination was absolute. In the seven seasons between 1996 and 2002, Antlers bagged four championships, while Jubilo put in their cabinet the other three. Of the 12 “stages” played between 1997 and 2002, Antlers won four, and Jubilo an astounding six. In their last year of supremacy, 2002, the club from Iwata were the first team to win both stages, leading to the first-ever J-League two-stage season that did not need a final to assign the title.
There were several players that marked this period, and a few are worth mentioning. First, there was the irreducible, irascible, untamable Dunga, famous for introducing to the Japanese the concept of malicia, a Portuguese word that has since then entered the Japanese dictionary.
The Brazilian often made the headlines for “abusing” his teammates during the games. Dunga had no problem criticizing youngsters such as the teenage rising star Naohiro Takahara, and he was not intimidated by local heroes such as Hiroshi Nanami, Toshiya Fujita or the legendary striker Masashi “Gon” Nakayama.
In the Antlers’ corner, among many top footballers, one to remember was surely Leonardo, even though he left Japan at the end of 1996. Also a Brazilian, this classy player was impressive for his intelligence and was one of the few foreign J-Leaguers who learned the Japanese language.
This pantheon of heroes would not be completed without the Serbian fantasista Dragan Stojkovic, who played at Nagoya Grampus from 1994 to 2001 and delighted the fans with his silky football. Pixy, as he is known to many, was a playmaker gifted with amazing class. He drove several Japanese referees crazy, including one instance when he grabbed a yellow card from the hand of the judge and showed it to him, before he was eventually sent off.
Jubilo and Antlers reached their peak in the last two years of the decade: the Iwata outfit were the first Japanese club to win the Asian Champions League, in 1999; while Antlers nailed a historical treble the year after: in 2000 they won the J.League title, the Yamazaki Nabisco League Cup and the Emperors’ Cup.
Two more big developments in the regulation and structure of the Japanese game came in 1999. Firstly, with this season, penalties were dropped, and teams that had fought bravely for 120 minutes were both awarded one point.
But the real novelty that came before the turn of the century was the introduction of a second division, known as J2, that kicked off with 10 teams. This implied the beginning of a promotion and relegation system that now created another reason of interest (and perhaps some anguish) for J1 fans: the struggle for survival in the top tier.
Alas, with the Japanese economy sputtering and so many changes, there were also those who failed to cope. In 1998, Yokohama Flugels, one of the founding members of the J-League, declared bankruptcy and announced that the club would merge with crosstown rivals Marinos.
At the end of the season, with their destiny decided, the Fluegels found themselves as one of the outsiders in the final knock-out games of the Emperor’s Cup. Facing the possibility of playing their last game every time they entered the pitch, the team led by German Gert Engels, made it all the way to the final with the support of the whole football community in Japan. The Fluegels then managed to overcome Shimizu S-Pulse to seal the most dramatic victory in the history of Japanese football.
The disbanded club was promptly put back together by an initiative started by a group of supporters, and renamed it as Yokohama FC. After already joining the JFL in 1999, by then a de-facto third division, they climbed their way into J2 in 2001. The strong will of the former Fluegels’ supporters was a tangible testimony of how a more mature passion for football, gradually but steadily, was re-taking over Japan.
It all peaked in 2002, the year when Japan and Korea co-hosted the World Cup and the Japanese national team, led by Frenchmen Philippe Troussier, reached the knockout phase of the tournament, making up for the unlucky performance of France 1998, when an inexperienced Japan led by Takashi Okada fought well but lost all of their three games.
In 2002, the J-League sported a total of 28 clubs, almost three times the number of franchises that had taken the plunge in the opening season 10 years before. The number of spectators had returned to the peaks of 1995, and on the positive waves stemming from the World Cup, the J-League was looking optimistic after a decade of existence.