J2 and the Gauntlet of Hate
Crowd photo [photoshopped]: Waka 77, CC-BY-SA-3.0
Football bureaucracy is terrible, isn’t it? Procedural hindrances plague Japan’s football system like you wouldn’t believe. J2 took a body blow goal to its autonomy at season's end, this year. Let us file the paperwork accordingly.
J2, as the acronym hints, is Japanese football's second tier. Similar to the Football League in England, which manages the Championship as well as League One and Two, the JLeague governs the country's top three levels. Together, they comprise the professional leagues. Promotion from J2 means trips to the metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka with filled stadiums and the opportunity to play in the Asian Champions League.
Relegation to J3 means absurd journeys to islands way off the beaten track and playing in towns where public bathing is more popular than football. See Okinawa and Gunma for example. J2 is the middle ground but everyone wants the top flight prosperity. Hence, it's important to facilitate the teams' movement in good fashion.
Yet the J.League has its own vision of who should and shouldn’t be promoted. Teams must have licenses to perform at specific levels. In order to play in J3, you must fill certain criteria. J2, you must have a little bit more of than prior and so on and so forth. The motivation is to ensure the leagues are populated with thriving teams which are sustainable. Yes, the entire English pyramid is run with similar requirements but there are options for teams with stadium difficulties and the like. Clubs who have earned promotion in the professional leagues are rarely turned back. Japan is not so accommodating.
This year, Machida Zelvia stormed to the summit of J2 and for the bulk of the season looked like they’d go on to win the title. The would-be champions, however, do not possess a J1 license. Under official rules, it means they keep the accolade of being champions but forego all the tangible rewards of promotion. It’s a bit like winning a car with no motor, brakes or tyres. The club had originally planned to apply for its J1 license next season, yet with Nakashima firing on all cylinders, they fast-tracked the application. Declined. “Not enough fans, the stadium is too small and you have no independent training facility. Come back next year”.
An extraordinary answer. Permission to join the Football League can be rescinded, but usually with direct instructions on how to reverse the decision. In most cases, football associations want to reward positive performances with promotion. While the consortium deliberated over Machida Zelvia's fate, the squad was unable to play with the same gusto. September was statistically one of their worst months, with just the lone win with from four games played.
In many ways, the J.League became a self-fulfilling prophecy with the decision. They stopped the progression of the club themselves. Allowing them passage to J1 would facilitate the growth of the club performances declares worthy of J1.
In terms of fans, they come with the status of top-tier football. Japanese fans are more interested in J1 than J2. The three promoted clubs last year all enjoyed healthy spurs in popularity. Shonan Bellmare’s average attendance went up by 41%, Nagoya experienced a 63% increase and Nagasaki exploded with an 86% surge in spectators. There is no reason to believe it would have been any different for Machida.
True, the stadium needs a few more seats but revenues from increased attendance would finance the expansion. The JLeague should have taken into account Machida's 21% increase in paying fans during this campaign, and the sold-out venue for the season's final match.
Machida is situated between Yokohama and Tokyo, the two biggest cities in the country. The 37.9 million inhabitants living in the sprawling megalopolis are all potential fans. Given its proximity and the already growing fanbase, it's odd to see why a provisionary J1 license wasn't awarded.
The club slumped from the top spot and finished fourth in the playoff spots but are ineligible to participate. Instead, Yokohama FC gets a free pass to the next round. Omiya Ardija will play Tokyo Verdy in a one-game tie to determine who will play Yokohama FC in the next round. Yokohama finished third in the division, so having to play one less game in this series was determined an ample prize at Machida’s promotion bereavement. Context: a colleague at work turns up two minutes late, everyone else gets a pay rise.
The playoff winner doesn't earn automatic promotion. They must first better the third-worst side in J.1. For its part, Yokohama need only win two games to earn promotion.
Yet the 16th placed team from J1 can save its skin at the end of the day by winning one game against a side which has played a longer season and endured an arduous post-season. This tops off a gauntlet of hate of which is designed to keep J2 teams in J2.
To me the whole ordeal is awful. Zelvia had nothing to play for at the end of the season so would have found it hard to motivate players. Now, given that they could have realistically won the title, the players may believe they are better than the J2 standard. As they seek greener pastures, the club could easily fall apart over a bureaucratic refusal to process their application.