TOKYO (April 27): The World Cup is giving Japan's smaller clubs the chance to win some silverware this season in the form of the J.League's Nabisco Cup.
The tournament starts today (Saturday) around the country, with the 16 first division teams drawn into four groups of four. The top two teams in each group, after a six-round mini-league running through to May 12, will qualify for the quarterfinals in September.
The advantage the less glamorous clubs hold is that the leading players of the established powers, such as Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata, will all be missing. They are with Japan's national squad preparing for next week's Kirin Cup games against Slovakia and Honduras.
So this gives other teams a great chance to knock out the big boys and book themselves a place in the last eight.
Antlers, for example, will be missing goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, midfielders Koji Nakata and Mitsuo Ogasawara and strikers Takayuki Suzuki and Atsushi Yanagisawa.
Jubilo will have defender Makoto Tanaka and midfielders Toshihiro Hattori and Takashi Fukunishi with the national team, while Nabisco Cup-holders Yokohama F Marinos cannot call on the services of defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Naoki Matsuda, and the midfield trio of Daisuke Oku, Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhiro Hato.
So with such an array of stars absent, teams such as Gamba Osaka and Vegalta Sendai must be serious contenders.
Vegalta have made an impressive start to their first season in the top flight, and are in third place after seven matches as the league takes a break for the World Cup.
On Saturday they play Jubilo in Group A at Kamoike, and Vegalta's only absentee is five-goal striker Yoshiteru Yamashita, who is making a late claim for a place in Japan's World Cup 23.
Gamba are in fourth position but will not have national team captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto to call on. Apart from this stylish central defender, who is such a strong reader of the game, Gamba are in tact, and have enough quality in all departments to finally win some silverware for the Kansai clubs.
Urawa Reds have no national team players, so will feel they have a chance of progressing from Group D with red-hot Brazilian Emerson leading the scoring charts on seven goals this season.
So there's a big incentive for the smaller clubs to lift their game, and end the domination of the J.League's powers.
Perhaps it's their best chance since the competition kicked off in 1992, the season before the league got under way.