J.League makes nervous restart in Japan

After a wait of four months, top-flight football joins baseball in reopening in the country of next year's Olympic Games

By Shintaro Kano

After 132 days, the wait is over.

Top-flight professional football returned to Japan on Saturday (4 July), as the J.League First Division swung back into action for the first time since the season-opening weekend of 23 February.

Following in the footsteps of Nippon Professional Baseball, which opened its campaign on 19 June, the 18-team J.League reconvened with nine matches held nationwide.

"Football is finally back. And we owe this to all those who supported us." - J.League Chairman Murai Mitsuru speaking ahead of kick-off across Japan

While it may be just one round of games on the calendar, Saturday was a significant step for the host country of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with its two most popular sports going live once again.

J.League Chairman Murai Mitsuru said, "We realise we are reopening amid a lot of inconvenience for our fans. We hope we can show the world the new possibilities of football as a spectator sport – a new way of getting involved in football."

Kawasaki Frontale players celebrate a goal from Shogo Taniguchi (2nd from R) in their 2-1 home win over Kashima Antlers.

The J.League had shut down after the 23 February start as the coronavirus spread in Japan, leading to the halt of virtually every sporting event – including the Games, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.

With the number of infections rising rapidly in the days leading up to Saturday – especially in Tokyo – tension was high around the league’s venues.

No fans and only 25 reporters were allowed at each game with anyone entering the premises having their body temperatures checked.

Five substitutions per team are being permitted for the remainder of the season, given the high number of matches to squeeze in before the year’s end.

The J.League plans to admit fans – a maximum of 5,000, under 20 percent capacity – from next Friday (10 July) when the Japanese government is planning to ease restrictions.

On a night of mixed emotions, there was one notable milestone as Gamba Osaka midfielder Endo Yasuhito, Japan's most capped player with 152 appearances for the national team, played in a record 632nd J.League match.

Endo, whose team lost 2-1 at home to city rivals Cerezo, said, "I don’t want to keep stretching the record for the sake of it. I want to play and play well.

"I feel fortunate to be on the pitch today." - Gamba Osaka's Endo Yasuhito