The Four-Years Marathon

It’s another run for the J. League, another crazy effort to reach the finish line. After two seasons with a compact schedule, 2022 isn’t going to be any different: the full season – starting on February 12th with the Japanese Super Cup (Kawasaki Frontale-Urawa Red Diamonds) and ending on November 5th with the last matchday in J1 – will pose another huge challenge for the championship.

It all started in 2020, when the league was ready to take another leap forward after the last match of 2019 – the one between Yokohama F. Marinos and FC Tokyo – had just registered the record for a J1 crowd in 27 years (63,854). It was supposed to be the beginning of something more and instead the first outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted the whole league. A tough hurdle to overcome, especially for a league that plays from March to December.

2021 was no different, since 2020 needed special rules, and the successive season needed to reverse those special adjustments back to normality. 38 games, 20 teams, four relegations, and a run with fewer interruptions – many games went through without issues –, but with the Tokyo Olympics suddenly breaking the season in two halves. Not a small detail to manage, given how the 2020 Olympic Games had already been postponed.

In all of this, many problems kept their relevance in the Japanese football world:

  • J. League Cup hasn’t gone away, always involving two teams just relegated from J1.
  • J2 stayed with 42 games and 22 teams, but they didn’t retain the four relegations, which had though a decent impact on the league.
  • J3 is going to get bigger and bigger; if the stars align in the right direction, 2023 might be the first year featuring relegation from the third tier to JFL.
  • Last but definitely not least, AFC didn’t really think through the schedule for this year’s Champions League.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, can J. League survive the next 24 months and reach the finish line?

The Past

As we said, it’s not the first time we’re discussing the schedule of J. League. We had a small article in March 2019, where we proposed mostly three changes:

  • Ditching the J. League Cup.
  • Reducing the no. of teams in J2 from 22 to 20, at least to create some balance towards relegation/promotion playoffs against J1.
  • A new J3 League, where we would have 32 teams split into two divisions, to save money on trips and organization (we can feel anything but real gratitude when we’ve seen Iwate’s fans for a game in Miyazaki).

We also hoped for a 20 teams-J1, but then… the pandemic hit. The schedule became unbearable and even pundits or simple fans of J. League were struggling to keep the pace. Bear in mind that, in 2020, from the restart of the leagues – while Summer was just starting –, hard-core fans have witnessed 1,074 highlights to recover and devour. At a certain point, you might get reel-poisoning.

And if 2020 was a rush to the finish line, 2021 required a big effort to put everything in place and hope to get to the end. Tokyo Olympics split the calendar into two clear halves, with some teams having the time of their lives and then racking up almost no points in the second part of the year. Furthermore, J3 became way shorter (with just 15 teams), but J1 had four more matchdays to manage.

The Present

What about 2022, instead? Theoretically, we should be back to normal, at least on paper. J3 will now have 18 teams (four relegations from J2 and the add of Iwaki FC have brought things back to normal), J2 will somehow keep the 22 teams-format (but they’re back to two relegations: why?) and J1 can finally enjoy their 34 matchdays-season, hoping to finish the season by November 5th.

But two big “ifs” are on the horizon. The first one is the most obvious: the 2022 FIFA World Cup in December. Sure, Japan are not qualified yet and they might miss it, but if they don’t, how much will it impact the schedule? One might argue that two factors will definitely help JFA: a) most players selected for the World Cup will probably come from European-based clubs; b) J. League is played from March to December every time, so this might actually help.

Do not forget though that Japan will have to accommodate another int’l commitment: the 2022 EAFF E-1 Championship, which was scheduled for 2021 and then got postponed to this year. The tournament – to be held in China – will anyway require some kind of effort, but even the most blatant one will take a toll on the schedule.

The Future

And we’re forgetting another detail: the 2022 AFC Champions League. This year’s edition will actually become the “2022-23” edition, since the continental competition won’t be able to end before the advent of the FIFA World Cup in the last weeks of autumn. The Group Stage will start on April 15th and it’ll end two weeks later; the East will reach the semifinals in August, but… the West won’t and the final is set to be played in February… 2023.

And this four years-schedule will hit another roadblock in 2023, when China will host the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as well. It’ll be the first Summer edition in 16 years, due to the fact the World Cup has pushed the Asian Cup towards a dangerous season (given the recent climate change, it won’t be easy to host this edition in a full, torrid and hot weather of a Summer period).

Is it time to rethink the structure? It’s certainly time to have a conversation about it.

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