Since published on In Bed With Maradona here.
On Saturday October 29th, Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds took to the National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo to battle it out for the J. League Yamazaki Nabisco Cup. There were few spare tickets to be had on match day, but looking beyond the glamour of the cup final, not everything is rosy for the twenty year old competition. From its high profile beginnings as essentially the first season of the J. League, the competition has since fallen on hard times. I’ve been noticing an increasing number of voices questioning its value.
The J. League, which began proper in 1993, was pre-dated by the league’s cup tournament. In 1992 the ten new pro teams took part in a round robin group stage with the top four progressing to a knock out. In the final, early J. League pace setters Verdy Kawasaki beat Shimizu S-Pulse to effectively become the first champions of Japan. That initial format turned out to be one of many, with the structure of the competition rarely staying the same for long.
The evolving J. League created a constantly changing number of teams to accommodate, as ten became twelve, then fourteen, and only since 2005 has the number of clubs in J1 reached a stable eighteen. With more games meaning more revenue, a straight knock out, while the obvious option, has never been seen as a lasting solution. Awkwardly numbered groups, and unbalanced home and away pairings, have long been favoured to ensure at least three home games for each team.
From 2002, a sixteen team J1 gave the Nabisco Cup several seasons of organisational ease, with four groups of four leading onto the last 16 stage. But in 2005 enter the expanded Asian Champions League. With its own group stage happening the same time as the league cups’, the domestic competition came out second. Any Japanese team competing in Asia were considered to have bigger fish to fry and were granted a free pass to the knock out stage. This created a situation whereby the final could easily be comprised of teams who had won just two ties each. Credibility compromised? Just a bit.
Speaking of credibility, the J. League Cup has long suffered the same affliction of its English counterpart; half strength teams with players rested for that all important upcoming league match. Consider too that fixtures are currently shoehorned into the season wherever there is an opening. Most take place on international weekends with the biggest stars away, or midweek evenings, which even in the league show a marked reduction in crowd figures.
A wider issue hard to ignore is how cup competitions have consistently failed to attract crowd numbers comparable to the league. This is true of both the league cup or the older, more illustrious Emperor’s Cup; traditionally the season climax. League cup group stage games are currently packaged within season tickets, and non season ticket holders rarely attend in any numbers. Into the knock out stages, where tickets are sold game by game, gates generally stay comparatively low or drop. In 2011, the four quarter final fixtures gates combined failed to reach the 20000 mark. Only does the final generate any noticeable interest.
But unlike the Emperor’s Cup which is open to all, despite the creation of J2 and the fact many members are eager for a shot against top flight opposition, except for 1999-2001 the league cup has remained a private J1 party. An argument oft repeated in favour of retaining equivalent tournaments around the world is the interest generated by giant killing cup runs. Indeed towards the end of 2011 it was widely reported that J2 teams would be competing in 2012’s league cup instalment. That however was quickly brought into doubt by rumblings of discontent within J1 at the prospect of decreased gate income.
So take that chance of revived interest away, and what is left? Put bluntly we have a tournament playing third fiddle behind the league and ACL, with a frequently fluctuating format and up to four teams injected directly into the quarter finals. It’s a competition competed by weakened teams drawn exclusively from the top division with zero chance of giant killing upsets, and a general lack of interest as evidenced by gate figures. It hardly reads as a glowing endorsement.
Income from the three group games is clearly important enough that the league cup will never be scrapped, so what can be done to reverse the fading interest? Firstly, in contrast to the current when-can-we-fit-it-in-this-year? approach, increased standardisation of fixture dates would help build supporter consciousness, as would better timing of games generally. Aside opening up the tournament to J2 clubs, its conversion to an U21 tournament is something I’ve regularly heard suggested and strongly advocate. Instead of the current token New Hero award decided at each final, it would create a platform for Japan’s young players to make their mark over a number of games.
In another small chipping away of the competition’s value, perhaps ironically, the winners of the Emperor’s Cup or league top three finishers gain entry to the ACL, which makes it considerably easier to win the league cup. Winning the league cup affords no such reward. A title is a title, but in a busy season, managers are quick to prioritise. The Yamazaki Nabisco Cup has clearly come upon lean times. The question is now whether the league is willing to work to find a place for their once flag ship competition, or if they are happy to let it continue to stagnate as the routine three-guaranteed-gate-receipts performance it has become.