J. League

J. League

Formed: 1992 (inaugural season 1993)
Number of Teams: 18
Promotion/Relegation: Yes
Relegation to: J. League Division 2 (J2)
Domestic Cups: Nabisco Cup; Emporer’s Cup
Current Champions: Nagoya Grampus
Most number of Championships: Kashima Antlers (6)


The J. League, widely considered as the premier domestic league in Asia, was formed in the early 1990′s by the Japanese Football Association as a way to increase the standard of football across Japan.

Prior to the J. League, the Japan Soccer League (renamed Japan Football League), an amateur competition, was the highest level of football in Japan. In 1992 the ten-team J. League was officially born, consisting of eight teams from the old JSL, one from the second division and the newly created Shimizu S-Pulse. The ten-teams that made up the inaugural J. League were:

  • Kashima Antlers
  • Urawa Red Diamonds
  • JEF United Ichihara
  • Verdy Kawasaki
  • Yokohama Marinos
  • Yokohama Flugels
  • Shimizu S-Pulse
  • Nagoya Grampus Eight
  • Gamba Osaka
  • Sanfrecce Hiroshima

The inaugural season kicked off on May 15, 1993 with a clash between Verdy Kawasaki (now Tokyo Verdy) and Yokohama Marinos at the Kasumigoaka National Stadium.

The league would explode onto the scene in Japan, with a number of high-profile foreign players bought in to add some glitz to the league. Names such as Gary Lineker, Pierre Littbarski, Dragan Stojkovic and Zico graced the field and had a profound effect on their respective clubs. Zico would go on to manage Kashima Antlers and is revered by their supporters to this day.

The success of the inaugural season saw clubs that remained in the JFL desperate to join, and in the second season Jubilo Iwata and Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare) joined as the J. League expanded to 12 teams. The second season would again prove to be a massive success, with crowds averaging 19,598. To this day, that season average has not been bettered.

But what goes up must come down and after the initial boom, in which eight clubs were added between 1994 and 1998, things started going south. Crowds dropped from an average of 19,500 in 1994 to just over 10,000 in 1998.

Clubs, who still continued to pay high-salaries for foreign players, were bleeding money and sponsors became worried, and when the Japanese economy took a turn for the worst things came to a head.

The biggest example of this came when Sato Kogyo, a general contractor and primary co-sponsor of Yokohama Flugels announced that it was experiencing financial difficulties and was removing its financial support for the club. The club’s other main sponsor, All Nippon Airways, who could not support the club on its own, met with Nissan Motors, the primary sponsor of Yokohama Marinos, the Flugels cross-town rivals, and together they agreed to merge the two clubs.

The Flugels were dissolved as a club and the Marinos were re-named Yokohama F.Marinos, the ‘F’ representing the Flugels. This incident symbolised the fall from grace of the J. League and other clubs across the country were also feeling the pinch.

It became clear that without some change to the structure of the league, the league was in grave danger of collapsing.

In 1999 the league announced a series of major changes designed to save the league and put it on the right path. The first step was the release of the 100 Year Vision, in which they aim the make 100 professional clubs across Japan by 2092, the league’s 100th year. Together with this the league strongly encouraged clubs to forge stronger links with their local communities. The league believed that doing so would lead to increased support from local sponsors, government and fans and would minimise the reliance on major national companies.

The second change was significant - the league acquired nine clubs from the JFL and one club from the J. League to create the J. League Division 2, thus creating a two-division system for the professional game in Japan. The top flights, J. League Division 1 (J1) would have 16 teams and J. League Division 2 (J2) would have 10. The JFL went from being the second-tier league to the third.

Another major change occurred in 2004 when the league scrapped the format of splitting the league season into two halves. Originally the J. League season consisted of two halves, with the Champions from either half meeting at the end of the season in a Championship Playoff to determine the ultimate winner. Jubilo Iwata, in 2002, and Yokohama F.Marinos, in 2003, won both halves of the season, thus eliminating the need for a playoff, which was part of the reason the league opted to go down this path.

The changes would have an affect, with the league growing gradually year on year since the implementation of these changes at the turn of the century. In 2005 the J. League would expand to 18 teams, the current number of teams, and the number of relegation spots grew from 2 to 2.5 (the third-bottom in the J. League would face a playoff against the third placed J2 side). That number grew to three in 1999.

The J. League is now regarded as the premier league across Asia and the look other nations look to as an example of what a domestic league in Asia should be like.

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