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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

J. WALKING

J. League would run smoother with European-style season


Just as the J. League first division was warming up again, it's now closed for business for another month.

Jeremy Walker

Last time it was a seven-week break, from May 15 to July 2, for the annual Kirin Cup, World Cup qualifying and the Confederations Cup; this time it's for the East Asian Championship in South Korea and Japan's last World Cup qualifier, at home to Iran on Aug. 17.

Round 18 was completed on Sunday, and Round 19 will not start until Aug. 20.

All of which adds considerable weight to the argument for a change in the J. League season.

According to insiders at JFA House, the Japan Football Association is pushing for a European-style league season, starting in mid-August, playing through the winter and finishing in May.

This would leave June and July free for national team commitments, and would bring Japan more into line with FIFA's international calendar.

The J. League, however, is not in favor, as it would cause major problems for some of the best-supported clubs.

At the top of that list is Albirex Niigata, whose Big Swan Stadium would be out of bounds for around three months due to the severe winter.

With 22,000 season ticket-holders and 40,000-strong crowds at every home game, Niigata is one of the jewels in the J. League crown.

"The nearest place we could play our home games is Gunma, but there isn't a stadium big enough for all our fans," says Chikashi Wakasugi, Albirex's manager of operations.

"With 22,000 season ticket-holders, and another 10,000 tickets tied up in sponsorship packages, it would be very complicated to have home matches outside of Niigata.

"We could not support a change to a European-style season, as we would not be able to play in Niigata from December through to February. Even March is too cold."

This, of course, is one of the major concerns of J. League chairman Masaru Suzuki.

The other two clubs who would suffer the most would be J2 sides Sapporo and Yamagata, although an artificial pitch inside Sapporo Dome would quickly solve the first problem.

The J. League must do something, however, to improve the flow of the season.

This year's J1 kicked off on March 5, and the 34th and final round of the expanded 18-team top flight will not be held until Dec. 3.

With all these breaks for national team commitments, it means the J. League has to cram in more mid-week evening fixtures, which traditionally attract fewer spectators.

A European season would make more sense to Japan, with a short winter break, and make it easier for the transfer of players in both directions.

In recent years, the J. League has shown a remarkable willingness to adapt.

Penalty shootouts, golden goals, extra time to decide league matches . . . all these gimmicks have been abandoned, as has the two-stage system in which the best, most consistent team -- which is what a league is supposed to be about -- would often not win the championship.

An August-May season might be a harder sell, but surely it's the next road down which the J. League must venture to ensure a smoother season.

One way of reducing the crowded calendar would be to scrap the so-called All-Star Game.

This is another relic of the J. League's past, and has no meaning in the soccer world.

This year's match will take place at Oita Stadium on Oct. 9, while the national team is on a two-match tour of eastern Europe.

According to reports, Zico will allow the J. League to keep a few star names back in Japan, and miss the matches against Latvia on Oct. 8 and Ukraine on Oct. 12.

If this is true it's a ludicrous situation, as Zico should be able to choose any player he wants in the buildup to the 2006 World Cup.

Apart from a few FIFA-organized all-star charity matches, it is an alien concept and has no place in a serious soccer society.

Fans do not have to be able to vote for their favorite players to feel part of the game.

They already are part of the game, and who needs relaxation and enjoyment watching a dreary All-Star Game contested by players who would rather be somewhere else?

All-star? Don't they mean all-nonsense?

So the White Witch Doctor is returning to Africa after all, as head coach of Nigeria.

During his four eventful years in Japan, Philippe Troussier once said it was impossible to work in Nigeria.

He had been there already, of course, and been fired, and claimed he didn't get paid and that the Nigerian Football Association did not settle his hotel bill, so he ended up sleeping in the corridor.

The last remark was probably a typical Troussierism, but with him you never knew.

In the three years since the 2002 World Cup, Troussier's reputation has nosedived, as head coach of Qatar (fired in 2004) and then as manager of Olympique Marseille (fired in 2005).

In Africa, however, he retains a certain mythical status due to his past successes for a variety of clubs and countries.

One day, surely, he will return to Japan, if any J. League club is brave enough to hire him.

But it won't be anywhere near the national team as long as Saburo Kawabuchi is president of the JFA.

Player of the Week: Gamba Osaka's Brazilian forward Araujo.

Two goals in the 4-1 victory over Cerezo Osaka in the Osaka derby gave him 17 for the season, five clear of his nearest rivals in the scoring chart.

Quote of the Week: "It is very important that life goes on, and sport is at the forefront of that. It is business as usual. We make no concessions."

-- Britain's Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, after persuading Inter Milan to visit England and not cancel a four-match tour following the London bombings.



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