By Ben Mabley
In England, we like to market our Premier League as characteristically competitive. Although there is a clear divide between the ‘big’ teams and the ‘small’ teams like with most European football leagues, the thrill comes from knowing that any member of the latter category is always capable of upsetting a giant in any given match. Just recently, I was fortunate enough to be in the commentary box when little Burnley earned a draw away to Premier League leaders Chelsea, and then again when they beat second-placed Manchester City.
But the great thing about the J. League here in Japan is that its unpredictability is not limited to individual matches. At the start of each season, nobody really knows who the ‘big’ and ‘small’ teams are going to be. When fans reassemble on the terraces of their local clubs every March, deep down even they can’t be sure if they will be praying to avoid relegation or cheering their heroes on towards a title challenge in the nine months ahead.
This is a competition in the truest sense of the word, and the drama that unfolds throughout spring, summer, and autumn can be quite astonishing as a result.
Take last season. Gamba Osaka arrived back in J1, the J. League’s top division, as champions of the second tier but struggled to readjust – losing seven and winning just four of their first 14 games. Realistically, it appeared to supporters and pundits alike that merely avoiding relegation would be their major challenge. But once the World Cup was out of the way, star striker Takashi Usami returned from injury and Gamba were a changed team. All of a sudden they won 15 of their next 19 matches to gradually chip away at the big lead Urawa Reds held over them in the standings. Two goals in the last five minutes of a nail-biting, must-win fixture at Urawa handed the Osaka club the initiative, and they repeated Kashiwa Reysol’s 2011 feat of becoming champions in Japan in their first season after promotion from J2.
Gamba have previous history when it comes to drama. In 2005, they appeared odds-on to win a first league title entering the final two months of the season but went on a run of five defeats in six to surrender first place to their city rivals, Cerezo Osaka. By this stage, the J. League table had grown so congested that fully five teams remained in contention for title glory going into the final day, separated by just two points. Going into the final minute, each of the quintet were winning their respective matches, but having scored late on to secure a two-goal cushion away to Kawasaki Frontale, Gamba had to stare nervously at the scoreboard in hope of news from Osaka. Incredibly, Cerezo conceded a last-minute equaliser at home to FC Tokyo and the championship was Gamba’s – even though there wasn’t time for the trophy to be flown all the way over.
I should declare a bit of personal interest here as I am a Gamba fan myself, but the crazy close finishes had drawn me in to the J. League right from the first season I began watching in earnest as an exchange student. In 2003, there were ‘only’ four teams battling to be league champions ahead of the last round of matches, but two of them – Yokohama F. Marinos and Jubilo Iwata – were playing each other.
Marinos looked to have ruined it for themselves, and two of their rivals, by going a goal down and having their goalkeeper sent off inside the first 15 minutes. But they forced their way level, and with Jubilo defending the draw that would have been enough for them, the Yokohama club somehow scrambled a winner through Japan forward Tatsuhiko Kubo in added time. This should have meant dramatic title triumph for Kashima Antlers, but their 2-0 lead up the road in Urawa had turned into a nervy 2-1 and, even later in the day than Kubo’s strike, J. League MVP Emerson headed home an incredible equaliser. The champions now? A barely believing Marinos, watching on via their stadium scoreboard.
Every year seems to bring its own new twist. In 2007, Urawa held a ten-point advantage over Kashima in the standings with just five games to play and 15 points to play for, but tired suddenly after winning the Asian Champions League in November. On the final day of the J. League season, the Reds lost to a Yokohama FC side which had only won three of its previous 33 matches, and out of nowhere Antlers were champions. In 2013, Yokohama F. Marinos only needed to win one of their last two games to seal a first J. League medal for returning hero Shunsuke Nakamura, whose previous six-year spell at the club had fallen in between their championship years. In front of a packed crowd of 62,632 adoring fans… you’ve guessed it, they lost to Albirex Niigata, then again the following week at Kawasaki to surrender the title to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Everywhere you look there is a story, with the varying peaks and troughs at each club providing a multitude of narratives to keep us gripped from start to finish. Where else but the J. League would a football team suffer five defeats on the bounce late in the season but rally to secure back-to-back championships, as Kashima did in 2009? Where else would a one-time manager of the Slovenian national team be recruited to save a team from relegation, achieve an unprecedented sequence of 21 games unbeaten to pull said team to the very top of the standings, then get fired due to issues behind the scenes? Fans of Omiya Ardija will likely never forget those heady days of 2013 – nor the 16 defeats in 17 that immediately followed Zdenko Verdenik’s dismissal, as a precursor to their ultimate relegation last year.
Football, essentially, is the world’s favourite soap opera. But there are very few leagues around our planet which can sustain such constant novelty, unpredictability, and edge-of-the-seat thrills throughout the season. For a dozen years since those natsukashii student days, I have been hooked.
Looking for an excuse to get out and see more J. League games?Ben Mabley has you covered in his companion piece Exploring Japan Via the J. League Football Stadiums!