Learning From Other Leagues: The J League

by Absolute Thai Football

AFC League Ranking

This decides how many of a country’s teams play Champions League and AFC Cup matches. It’s based on the football competitiveness, professionalism, marketability and financial health of the league and it’s updated every two years. For the 2009–2010 season, the J League was number 1 in the East Asia section with over a hundred more points than West Asia leaders, Saudi Arabia.
In world team rankings, Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors are the first Asian team in 51st place, Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia come in 55th and fellow countrymen Al Shabab place 124th. The first Japanese team to feature is Nagoya Grampus in 154th place, rising 47 places in a year.

League History
The eight team semi professional Japan Soccer League (JSL) started in 1965 supported by large Japanese companies like Nissan and Yamaha. These teams went on to found the J.League, but company sponsored teams had limited fan appeal. So, in 1991, the Japan Football Association announced the basic structure of the new, professional, ten team league. On May 15, 1992, the first J League match kicked off in front of 59,626 fans at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
The league’s excellent grass roots support tempted the league into rapid expansion. Increasing to 12 teams in 1994 and annually up to 18 (its current number) in 1998, this was unsustainable back then. Several clubs struggled financially and attendances fell, forcing a restructure. Thailand needs to take heed. Whilst Thais have a great love for the beautiful game, if they see a bloated TPL shot through with massive inequalities of talent and stadia ranging from the palatial (Buriram) to the ramshackle ( Samut Songkhram) they will be much less motivated to watch. Japan addressed this by reducing the J League to 16 and creating a second division for teams whose size and financial backing was enough to make them viable, but not quite strong enough for J League entry.

The role of foreign superstars in the early days of the J league.
The day after Robbie Fowler’s acrimonious departure from Muang Thong United (“The president and CEO of mtutd know why I quit and it certainly was nothing to do with results…” @Robbie9Fowler) the role of stars like Zico and Gary Lineker in the J league is a sobering lesson for Thailand.
The huge star names came in the boom times for the Japanese economy and, foolishly on reflection, the J League made the same mistakes as the North American Soccer League. Whilst the New York Cosmos became ” the most glamourous team in world football” according to their President and propelled the league to new heights, its popularity fell mainly on one man’s shoulders. When Pele retired in 1977, the whole league went into decline and eventually folded in 1984. The J League was formed as Japan’s economic bubble burst, so after the early years of Arsène Wenger and Linker, the clubs had to scale back on recruiting foreign talent. Nowadays, wisely, the J-League attracts foreign players but its main focus is on the Asian Champions League.
The J League’s success has also benefitted the K-League. Cut off from the footballing boom of the past decade and forced to prove their financial viability by a strict ruling association, the growth of the J League helped create an East Asian bloc that is well placed to weather the footballing bust. This is where Thailand must mature, in the young and dynamic environment of East Asia rather than the choppy waters of the West.

The Hundred Year Development Plan
Essentially a process of infrastructure improvements and J League expansion, many feel it also aims to replace baseball with football as Japan’s favourite sport. Although much of the plan will need revisiting, this overarching roadmap of the future gives sponsors, fans and clubs a real feeling of trust and traction. I wait with interest to read the Thai FA fifteen year plan…

League Winners since the formation of the EPL in 1992: 8

Urawa Red Diamonds are currently the best supported side with an average attendance of 33,910, Albirex Niigata come in second with 26,049 and in third is Yokohama F. Marinos with 21,038. The lowest average attendance is for Omiya Ardija at 9,099 and the league average is 15,715. Having a lowest attendance 46% of the highest compares very favorably even with the EPL, which has a ratio between QPR and Manchester United of 22% and is a 19% stronger ratio than even the Bundesliga.

Foreign Players
Each club can field four foreign players if one of them is a non Japanese Asian. However, two players can be added to this limit if they are under 20 years old. They can also be promoted to the top contracts during a season. This incentive for young players to join elite pay needs Thai attention. It creates a fast track for skillful youth players, inviting them to prove their worth, instead of bouncing between the academy and senior systems whilst losing momentum.

Champions League and UEFA Cup places
Four Champions League places.

Players’ Wages
For the top professional contracts (Pro A) players can earn an annual minimum of ¥4.8 million (£40,000). There is a cap of ¥7 million (£60,000) for the first year, but no limits after that. This seems a sensible solution to superstar pay. If they make the commitment to play for a year before their mega deal, the club and fans get chance to assess their fitness, character and motivation instead of gambling on a huge initial outlay.

In Conclusion
The relatively low world rankings of J league teams masks a highly organised, financially sound federation. Rather than mortgaging the future to ape the western model, they target success within the AFC region. So, when the boom and busts of the west occur, even though Japan’s economy remains sluggish, the J league has a depth of strength and an underpinning from the Hundred Year Plan that makes it the Bundesliga of the East.