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The joys of summer

23 Aug 2008(Sat)

The winds of change may have made everything different by 2010, but under the existing calendar, I think this is probably my favourite time of year. After a dramatic climax to the 2007/08 season in Europe, I endured the lack of sleep to watch an excellent European Championships, and even when the football back home finally stopped for its summer break, the J League was just awakening from its own brief interlude. For a fan of both European and Asian football like myself, there is something to enjoy every single month of the year.


The Osaka heat may be a tad uncomfortable, but the reason that I like this time of year is that just as the long-awaited start to the new league campaigns in England and the rest of Europe are upon us, the Japanese season is beginning to heat up nicely. On matchday 22 of the J1 division this weekend, all eyes will be focused on league leaders Kashima Antlers’ clash with third place Nagoya Grampus, but the following day will also see bottom club Consadole Sapporo attempt to end their three match losing streak and close the gap towards relative safety in a direct meeting with Yokohama F Marinos, currently occupying the relegation/promotion playoff spot. Be it in the race for the title or the battle to avoid the drop, there is always something to keep your eye on.


This may be a point that I have made before, but the J1 league table this year remains quite unfathomably dense, and still just 15 points separate the top 16 teams as we reach the two-thirds point of the season. Somewhere in the middle, there remain a number of sides who could realistically harbour both hopes of title glory and fear of relegation, and it is simply impossible to predict how the final table will end up. With the Nabisco Cup and the Asian Champions League also entering their final stages, the excitement and anticipation will only continue to rise, but even when it all dies down here, the British clubs will be just warming up for their busy Christmas campaigns, and the whole cycle will begin again.


This cycle, however, now looks set to end if the current discussions about an autumn-to-spring season – as announced by JFA President Motoaki Inukai last month – come to fruition, but while I may be a little sad for selfish reasons to see things change, a move to this new calendar is something that is long overdue. Albirex Niigata and other clubs in regions susceptible to heavy snowfall have protested against the idea of football in winter, and this has already caused the J League’s policy to have been delayed from its original target date of 2006, but if facilities can be secured to allow these teams to play and train all year round, the pros of the transition will far outweigh the cons.


The press reports last month largely highlighted the greater ease that aligning the Japanese and European seasons would bring to transfer activities in each direction, but even greater benefits will be found in the distinction between ‘winter sports’ and ‘summer sports’ as we have in England. Like cricket in England, the Japanese summer sport of baseball is well suited to the warmer months, with matches taking longer to complete but involving less running, supporters able to enjoy proceedings more leisurely, and dry conditions required for play to go ahead. While football rests for the much cooler summers back home, it does seem a little strange that the J League players are forced to run around for ninety minutes in the stifling heat of the Japanese summer.


Supporters may also benefit from escaping the heat, but the most important point to this distinction is the enforced discrepancy between the baseball and football calendars. While a certain degree of overlapping is unavoidable, the sports would not be forced to compete for the attention of the press and public to quite the same extent if their respective season openers and title races occurred at different times of the year. I clearly remember when, in the autumn of 2005, both Gamba and Cerezo Osaka fought for the J1 title until the final day of the season, but barely the slightest recognition of such footballing prosperity could be found in the city centre amid the fanfare, flags, and commemorative merchandise celebrating the Central League victory of baseball’s Hanshin Tigers. I may have less to do in the summer, but perhaps it would be nice to celebrate the next league title in May after all.

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