Like it’s much-maligned English cousin, the League Cup in Japan is facing an image crisis. That’s nothing new for J. League officials, who for years have struggled with the competing interests of Japan’s biggest clubs.
A revamped Asian Champions League has brought the League Cup issue to a head. While Gamba Osaka, Kashima Antlers, Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus battle for continental glory this season, the remaining fourteen J1 clubs are left with the consolation of another dreary League Cup campaign.
With Asian combatants Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers afforded a bye into the League Cup quarter-finals in 2008, the remaining sixteen teams were divided into four groups of four. The four group winners and two best-placed runners-up then Situs Judi Qq progressed to the knock-out stages along with Gamba and Kashima.
However, the addition of two more Japanese clubs to the Asian Champions League has caused headaches for J. League officials in 2009.
With only fourteen top-flight clubs available to contest a League Cup group stage, officials have been forced into an unwieldy two-group system. With seven teams in each group, the J. League had no choice but to include byes in its convoluted new format – with the four Champions League representatives parachuting in at the knock-out stage.
Scheduling problems aside, the League Cup in Japan faces the same image problems that beset its English counterpart. For many mid-ranking clubs, the League Cup represents a legitimate chance to lift some silverware. But as squad sizes in Japan expand, some clubs treat the League Cup as little more than an opportunity to blood new players.
That prompted new Japan Football Association chief Motoaki Inukai to state last year that the League Cup should be converted to an under-23 competition – a statement that provoked an angry rebuke from the J. League, over which the JFA has no jurisdiction.
The J. League has avoided switching to an under-age format, and insists that regulations oblige clubs to field the strongest line-up available. But it hasn’t stopped fans from turning their backs on League Cup fixtures, with some clubs struggling to break even as a result of dwindling matchday crowds.
Some critics have called for the return of J2 clubs to the competition. Teams from Japan’s second tier last competed in the League Cup in 2001, but with J2 expanding rapidly since then, J. League officials have traditionally scheduled League Cup and J2 fixtures on the same day.
The addition of J2 clubs back into the League Cup mix may spark renewed interest in the competition, but there’s no guarantee that it will bring back the crowds.
The 4,172 fans that turned out for a Kansai derby between Kyoto Sanga and Vissel Kobe on Wednesday night may have been the smallest League Cup crowd of the evening, but it was still a higher attendance than any one of nine J2 games managed to attract.
Ironically the League Cup final remains a showpiece occasion in the Japanese calendar, with a colourful crowd turning out at the National Stadium in Tokyo for a crisp autumnal afternoon of football.
But with TV companies having long ago switched off any interest in the group stages, and with four of the biggest drawcards now occupied by the Asian Champions League, the League Cup group stage is for many fans in Japan a total irrelevance.