December 27, 2005 – Japanese football officials can look back proudly on a very successful 2005 on and off the pitch.
On the domestic front, the single-stage J.League season was a massive triumph, and has pointed the way forward.
On the international stage, Japan qualified with ease for the 2006 World Cup finals, and can be guaranteed a huge following in Germany next June and at home.
Overall, then, the game is in a very healthy state in Japan, with J.League crowds remaining stable in J1 and continuing to grow in J2. As for the national team, they could play virtually anyone at home (such as Chad or Macao) and still attract a full house, such is the pride in the blue shirt which has now become a national symbol around the world.
This time last year, as J1 planned for a single-stage season, there was a certain amount of pessimism around. Would the fans like to watch a marathon instead of two sprints? Would they continue to follow their team if they were out of the running for the championship?
These concerns were understandable, because the single-stage season in 1996 had not been a success from an attendance point of view, and was scrapped after one year.
But 2005 proved that the J.League fan has grown with the game, and was ready for an orthodox championship, with no gimmicks such as penalty shoot-outs, extra time, golden goals, and a two-leg play-off.
In a sense, then, the J.League was rewarded for its courage in making the move when five teams could have won the title on the last day of the season…after 33 games! This was a remarkable scenario, and I was fortunate to be at Todoroki on that “Super Saturday” to see Gamba win the crown in emotional and dramatic circumstances.
I was also one of the few people allowed into the stadium in Bangkok to see Japan beat North Korea and clinch a place in Germany. What a moment it was when Oguro scored the second late on, and raced around, Ya-jin-style, to celebrate!
Regarding the J.League awards, there is no disputing the right of Araujo in being named MVP. His 33 goa ls in 33 appearances papered over the cracks in a shaky defence, and Gamba must start again next season with Araujo in Brazil and Oguro in France.
The J.League 2006 will have a hard act to follow after the J.League 2005, but with the World Cup attracting even more attention and creating more heroes, I believe the domestic game will continue to evolve as a major factor in the Japanese sports scene.