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Friday, Oct. 3, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Japan's soccer calendar sorely in need of a revamp


Last season's J. League title race was as notable for Urawa Reds' physical breakdown as it was for eventual champion Kashima Antlers' success, and one glance at the rest of this year's fixture list should be enough to send a familiar shiver running down Reds manager Gert Engels' spine.

Andrew McKirdy

Urawa has slipped back to fourth in the table after a grueling run that saw it play six J. League and Asian Champions League games in the space of just 18 days, with another crucial domestic match against JEF United to come on Sunday.

Reds then square off against Gamba Osaka in their two-legged ACL semifinal on Oct. 8 and 22, with key players involved in the national team's World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan sandwiched in the middle.

Success, of course, comes at a price, and Urawa is unlikely to complain about the opportunity to defend its Asian continental title. But the schedule will take a heavy toll on players who have already been put through the wringer this year with a seemingly never-ending slate of games.

When Motoaki Inukai took over as JFA president in July, one of his first mission statements was to look into aligning the J. League with Europe by switching the season to run from August to May. The proposal must take many issues into account, but in light of the workload Japan's leading clubs face this autumn, it may also be worth considering what effect it would have on fixture congestion.

A club is less likely to rotate its squad if it faces a decisive stretch of matches in the final straight, and in the J. League that period — October and November — coincides with the business end of the ACL and the start of the Emperor's Cup.

If Russia is any example to go by, staggering commitments over the course of the year could benefit Japanese clubs.

The Russian season begins in March, meaning teams can build up a head of steam but maintain freshness by the time the final stages of European club competitions come round a few months later. Zenit St. Petersburg took full advantage to claim the UEFA Cup earlier this year, blowing a tired Bayern Munich away 5-1 in the semifinals.

Switching the J. League calendar would allow Japanese teams to do the same in the final stages of the ACL, but with the opening games coming at the end of the previous domestic season, the danger is that teams would be too tired to even make it that far.

Zenit, ominously, has begun its Champions League campaign with two straight defeats.

The real problem is not the timing of the season, but the amount of games played.

The national team has done nothing to alleviate the situation. So far this year, Japan has played 15 games, only seven of which have been World Cup qualifiers.

The rest have been friendlies designed to provide a tuneup prior to competitive fixtures, but very few of these games even fall on international dates. That means already-weak teams such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Paraguay visit without their star players, and the point of the exercise is diminished further.

Is a dry run really necessary before each and every competitive match?

If playing soccer is as natural as riding a bicycle for experienced professionals, surely they have enough confidence to perform without training wheels.

But the blame for the crowded schedule cannot be laid solely at the JFA's door. The J. League's Nabisco Cup, with its overblown, energy-sapping group stage contested largely by second-string lineups, is just as culpable.

The problem with Japanese soccer is that it doesn't know how to take a break.

Japan played five friendlies in January and February — including three bad-tempered local grudge matches in the East Asian Championships — at a time when soccer should have been shut down for the winter.

The Nabisco Cup is largely played at the same time as international dates, which would also seem like the perfect time to take a rest.

It is often said that many workers in Japan feel duty-bound to work through holidays, sacrificing time off because of a perceived obligation to their company. If soccer in this country echoes that attitude, it will continue to run itself into the ground.



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