THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The J League started to flourish after two seasons, recalls Mike Tuckerman

The long-term significance
The Japanese championship had been contested by the sports division of large companies until the creation of the J.League in 1993. Verdy Kawasaki, from an industrial city in the greater Tokyo area, had won the last two titles under the old system when they were attached to the Yomiuri media conglomerate. Under their new name they also took the first two J.League titles. However, they began a steady decline after losing the Championship play-off in 1995, a crippling wage bill and declining attendances bringing about a relocation to the capital in 2001 as Tokyo Verdy. Kawasaki has since acquired another professional club, Frontale, who were J.League runners‑up in 2006.  Yokohama Marinos’ 1995 title was the club’s sole domestic success in their original incarnation. An economic downturn saw the Nissan-backed Marinos merge with city rivals the Flügels at the end of 1998, to form the Yokohama F. Marinos.

Story of the season
Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol were promoted from the semi-professional Japan Football League, taking the number of teams to 14 and prompting an unwieldy 52-game season split into two separate championships. For the first stage, Verdy Kawasaki welcomed back Kazu Miura, who had been the first Japanese player in Serie A but scored only once in 21 games for Genoa. They were in contention throughout but had to settle for second behind Yokohama Marinos, who clinched the title thanks to free-scoring Argentine strikers David Bisconti and Ramón Medina Bello.
Verdy bounced back to win the second stage and force a play-off with Marinos, but the surprise package was Nagoya Grampus Eight. Gary Lineker had just retired after an injury-hit couple of years in which he played just 18 matches, but, led by mercurial Serbian midfielder Dragan Stojkovic – the league’s player of the season – Nagoya transformed themselves into genuine title contenders as they finished the second stage only eight points behind eventual winners Verdy. The two-legged Championship Series between Marinos and Verdy was played in front of packed houses at the National Stadium in Tokyo. The first leg was settled by David Bisconti’s winner, with Yokohama claiming a 2-0 aggregate win through a goal by legendary defender Masami Ihara. At the bottom, Kashiwa Reysol and Bellmare Hiratsuka had no cause to worry about their poor seasons as relegation was not introduced until 1998. 

For the record books
Urawa Reds striker Masahiro Fukuda finished top scorer with 32 goals, one more than Italia 90 star Totò Schillaci, whose Júbilo Iwata went on to dominate in the late Nineties. Miura and Koji Noguchi finished as the next best Japan-born scorers, with 23 goals each for Verdy Kawasaki and Bellmare Hiratsuka, respectively. Attendances were at a healthy average of 16,922 – a figure that was not surpassed until 2003.

Same place today
Six clubs have played every season in the top flight: Kashima Antlers, JEF United Chiba, Yokohama F. Marinos, Shimizu S-Pulse, Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka.

Moved furthest away
Bellmare Hiratsuka were relegated to J2 in 2000 – they have played there ever since, changing their name to Shonan Bellmare along the way. When Yokohama Flügels were the subject of a merger with the Marinos at the end of 1998, disgruntled former fans created their own club, Yokohama FC, who play in J2 alongside former top-flight club Cerezo Osaka.

From WSC 261 November 2008

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