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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005

J. WALKING

J. League eyes regional leagues for third division expansion


So how can the J. League follow that?

Jeremy Walker

After all, it's not every year you get five teams in with a chance of winning the championship on the last day of the season.

On Saturday, four of them won, but the team that really had to take three points, Cerezo Osaka, managed only one and dropped from first to fifth in a matter of seconds.

Incredible stuff, as were the scenes at Todoroki Stadium, where Gamba Osaka beat Kawasaki Frontale 4-2 to jump from second to first and stay there.

Not just the buzz of excitement that went around the Gamba fans when they heard FC Tokyo had equalized against Cerezo Osaka in the last minute, but the scenes, almost immediately after, when Araujo slotted home his second of the afternoon and raced toward the Gamba fans massed behind the goal.

Japanese fans can often be robotic in their choreographed singing, maintaining the rhythm even at the point of nirvana when their team scores a goal, but for Todoroki read Bombonera.

This was mayhem, as the Gamba fans, several of them barechested, broke through the barriers and engulfed the players in delirious scenes.

Seconds later it was all over. Cerezo had drawn 2-2 and thrown it all away, and Gamba suddenly had the championship in the bag when all looked lost just a couple of minutes before.

The J. League came of age this year with its orthodox one-stage season, and was rewarded with an unforgettable, and highly unusual, finale.

Penalty shootouts, extra time, golden goals, two short stages, a two-leg playoff without the most consistent team of the year involved . . . no, the J. League has a true champion in Gamba Osaka, as the league table does not lie after 34 games.

Next season, the J. League will expand again, this time to 31 clubs as Ehime FC from Shikoku joins J2, making a 13-team second division and a 48-match campaign, even more for relegated Tokyo Verdy, who will also contest the Asian Champions League.

With three clubs also moving up into the third-tier Japan Football League -- administered by the Japan Football Association rather than the professional J. League -- a three-division professional league is taking shape.

That may not come about for a few years yet, but a J. League survey among regional football associations this year revealed that some 40 clubs around the country would like to join the professional league.

Although in the discussion phase only, J1 and J2 could be supported by three regional third divisions -- J3 North, J3 Central and J3 South -- in the same way the English league used to have Division Three North and South to feed the national first and second divisions.

This cuts the costs drastically for the smaller clubs, who won't have the multibillion yen budgets of the likes of Urawa Reds, Yokohama F. Marinos and Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Wherever the J. League goes in the future, it's unlikely one point will separate the top five teams at the end of the season like it did this time.

* * *

Talk about own goals!

The Asian Football Confederation scored a howler with its decision to rule out anyone from winning the AFC Player of the Year award if they could not attend the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday.

So the provisional list of 10 candidates was cut to three finalists on the basis that the three players were able to travel to Malaysia for the gala dinner.

When one of the three, Saudi veteran Sami Al Jaber, informed organizers he could not attend on the eve of the awards, the shortlist was down to two: Saudi defender Hamad Al Montashari and Uzbekistan striker Maksim Shatskikh.

The award went to Al Montashari, but so what?

Was anyone still interested by then?

The AFC had some high-profile candidates on the list of 10, including the South Korean duo of Park Ji Sung and Lee Young Pyo, Japan's Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, and Iran's Ali Karimi, the 2004 Player of the Year.

But there's a good reason why they couldn't be in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 30, and that's because they are all playing in Europe and are wanted by their clubs.

It must be bad enough for the clubs having to release their Asian players for friendlies, so what chances are there for a gala dinner?

And would the players have wanted to come all that way?

Probably not.

The AFC is clearly trying to raise the profile of its annual awards, so it demands the winner be there, but this is becoming more and more difficult in the cluttered global calendar.

The clear winner, had the award been decided on merit, would surely have been Park, the former Kyoto Purple Sanga star.

Excellent form for PSV Eindhoven, both on the domestic and European front, earned him a summer move to Manchester United, and he has been quick to make his mark alongside the Old Trafford stars.

Just ask Wayne Rooney how much he values Park.

Couldn't the AFC have gone to Old Trafford, and presented Park with his Asian Player of the Year award before a home game in front of 67,000 fans and the mass media?

This would have generated much more positive publicity for the AFC, rather than hardly any publicity at all for the unfortunate Al Montashari.

* * *

The drama, and the J. League season, is not quite over yet.

The achievement of little Ventforet Kofu in finishing third in J2 on Saturday went by almost unnoticed amid the madness at Todoroki and the anguish at Nagai.

But it means Kofu will play J1's 16th-place team, Kashiwa Reysol, over two legs to decide who will claim the last spot in the 18-team top flight next season, and who must play in the second division.

The first leg is Wednesday night, at Kofu's home ground at Kose, and the second leg is at Kashiwa on Saturday afternoon.

While Hitachi gives generous financial support to the under-achieving Reysol, the same cannot be said for Ventforet.

The Yamanashi prefecture club has no major sponsor, but gets by with a little help from friends in the community.

Like the local dentist, barber and sento owner, who all provide their services free of charge to the players in return for advertising space.

But don't think that kind of community spirit comes cheap, especially for the hairdresser. In the J. League that's a big financial commitment, as fashion-conscious players have been known to change their hairstyle during the halftime break, and emerge with a different hue to confuse Japanese referees even more.

* * *

Player of the Week: Who else but Araujo, Gamba Osaka's prolific Brazilian striker. Another two goals with that silky left foot on Saturday took his season's tally to 33, and made him favorite for the J. League Player of the Year award on Dec. 20.

Quote of the Week: "George brought people together all over the world, and especially he brought people together in Northern Ireland."

-- Barbara McNarry, sister of the late George Best, speaking at the former Manchester United star's funeral on Saturday.



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