Thursday, 26 April 2018

J League History: 2003

After the boom of publicity generated by the World Cup, as well as the J.League's tenth anniversary celebration in 2002, the 2003 season was less flashy and filled with less hype, yet decades from now it may be recognised as the date that the league truly reached maturity. Some looked ahead with trepidation at the start of the season, worried that attendances would drop off as the World Cup-inspired blaze of publicity began to fade. But this was certainly not the case. On the contrary, attendances rose to their highest level since the "boom" of 1993-94. More importantly, the league began to develop solid roots in outlying regions of Japan, with teams like Albirex Niigata and Vegalta Sendai near the top of the list in terms of average attendances. Even tiny Ventforet Kofu, who once drew a record (low) crowd of 306 to a mid-season J2 contest, managed to attract attendances of over 10,000. Indeed, the team's total attendance for the season surpassed the entire population of Yamanashi prefecture!

As the J.League continued to gain popularity from fans in every part of the country, the top-drawing clubs started using their gate revenues to attract quality foreign players once again. Although some of the biggest blockbuster deals of the year (such as a bid by Yokohama Marinos to sign Cafu) fell through, the influx of talent to the league from overseas and the burgeoning numbers of soccer-playing younsters in Japan, contributed to a higher level of quality throughout both divisions.

In addition, there were indications that the league was entering a period of even greater parity among the various teams -- something for which the J.League has always been renowned. Though the Yokohama Marinos eventually won both stages, the races were close all season long. The second stage, in particular, was a wild and wooly battle to the finish line. With just two weeks left in the season, as many as ten teams still had a mathematical chance to claim the title. Never before had the league been so closely balanced, and this not only made for an exciting championship race; it also encouraged the smaller teams to begin developing longer-range plans to build a title contender.

J.League 2003, First Stage
. Team Pts GP W D L GF GA GDif
1 Yokohama Marinos 32 15 10 2 3 29 16 +13
2 Jubilo Iwata 31 15 9 4 2 34 17 +17
3 JEF United Ichihara 27 15 8 3 4 33 20 +13
4 FC Tokyo 25 15 7 4 4 14 11 +3
5 Cerezo Osaka 25 15 8 1 6 29 29 +0
6 Urawa Reds 24 15 7 3 5 25 23 +2
7 Nagoya Grampus 23 15 5 8 2 19 16 +3
8 Kashima Antlers 23 15 7 2 6 23 21 +2
9 Kashiwa Reysol 21 15 6 3 6 19 19 +0
10 Tokyo Verdy 19 15 6 1 8 28 32 -4
11 Shimizu S-Pulse 18 15 5 3 7 20 18 +2
12 Gamba Osaka 16 15 4 4 7 26 29 -3
13 Vissel Kobe 16 15 5 1 9 18 34 -16
14 Oita Trinita 15 15 4 3 8 20 21 -1
15 Vegalta Sendai 12 15 3 3 9 17 28 -11
16 Kyoto Purple Sanga 10 15 3 1 11 14 34 -20

 

J.League 2003, Second Stage
. Team Pts GP W D L GF GA GDif
1 Yokohama Marinos 26 15 7 5 3 27 17 +10
2 JEF United Ichihara 26 15 7 5 3 24 18 +6
3 Jubilo Iwata 26 15 7 5 3 22 17 +5
4 Kashima Antlers 25 15 6 7 2 21 19 +2
5 F.C.Tokyo 24 15 6 6 3 32 20 +12
6 Urawa Reds 23 15 6 5 4 29 19 +10
7 Gamba Osaka 23 15 6 5 4 24 17 +7
8 Nagoya Grampus 22 15 6 4 5 30 26 +4
9 Tokyo Verdy 21 15 5 6 4 28 25 +3
10 Shimizu S-Pulse 21 15 6 3 6 19 26 -7
11 Kashiwa Reysol 16 15 3 7 5 16 20 -4
12 Cerezo Osaka 15 15 4 3 8 26 27 -1
13 Vissel Kobe 14 15 3 5 7 17 29 -12
14 Kyoto Purple Sanga 13 15 3 4 8 14 26 -12
15 Vegalta Sendai 12 15 2 6 7 14 28 -14
16 Oita Trinita 11 15 1 8 6 7 16 -9

 

Another side-effect of the league's development was the increased interest in Japanese players by top clubs in Europe. No longer do European fans define their view of Japanese football on the basis of just one player. While Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura made a name for themselves in Italy, Shinji Ono was steadily establishing himself as the franchise player at Feyenoord, Junichi Inamoto began to make regular appearances at Fulham, and several new faces joined the crowd in Europe. Furthermore, the up-and-coming stars in Japan quickly attracted interest from European clubs. No longer did promising players need to establish themselves for several years in the national team before overseas scouts could respond to their names with something better than "Naka-who?"

 

During the first stage, the dominant theme was "Oka-chan", as former national team coach Takeshi Okada took the helm of Yokohama Marinos and quickly transformed a talented group of underperforming and undisciplined brats into a sleek, efficient pack of title-hungry fighters. The Marinos had to fight off strong challenges not only from traditional powers like Jubilo Iwata and Kashima Antlers, but also up-and-coming challengers like Urawa Reds and JEF United. However, the Oka-chan magic kept his team at peak efficiency right through the summer, and Yokohama coasted home to their first victory in a league stage in almost four years.

 

The second stage was one of the most exciting battles in league history. Though injuries to key players on Yokohama and Kashima were largely responsible for keeping these two teams from making a stronger run, thad did not diminish the force of the challenge from new, youth-laden clubs who were starting to move into the ranks of the top challengers. JEF United, Urawa Reds, both Tokyo clubs and Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus remained in the race until the final few matches, when the three traditional powers -- Marinos, Antlers and Jubilo -- finally pulled away from the pack to set up a showdown on the final week of the season.

 

The climax was like something out of a cliffhanger novel, with 10-man Yokohama coming back in the final minute of regulation time to overcome Jubilo, and the Antlers staring a title directly in the face only to have the Urawa Reds steal an equalizer in injury time and dash their hopes. Though the Marinos won both stages, making a playoff for the league crown unnecessary, it probably was for the best. After the drama of the final day, anything else would have been anticlimactic.

The only truly disappointing thing about the 2003 season was that, despite the excitement of the final few weeks, the J.League decided at the end of the year to abandon the league's two-stage format, beginning in 2005. This was unfortunate and somewhat surprising, considering what an exciting race there was, for both the first and second stage crowns.

By having two separate titles up for contention, and wiping the slate clean in midsummer, the J.League had a format that kept hope alive even at bottom-of-the table clubs. Attendances in the final weeks of the season were tremendous, and this was good for everyone concerned, both financially and in terms of team spirit. It is hard to imagine that crowds of over 50,000 would have been turning out on rainy, late October evenings if the race had been narrowed down to just one or two teams, weeks or even months before.

Though the J.League format seemed to be doing that quite well in that respect, with a two-stage championship, the Eurocentric forces eventually managed to prevail, and change to a single-stage championship format beginning in 2005. The change did indeed have a negative impact on attendance, especially at lower-ranked teams that were out of the running by the end of August. Declining revenues prompted the League to reinstate a two-stage format in 2015, but it would last for just two years. A full discussion of that brief reversal can be found in our discussion of the 2014-2016 seasons.


Scoring Leaders

Rank Player Team Goals (PKs) Shots
1 Ueslei Nagoya Grampus 22 (1) 136
2 Rodrigo Gral Jubilo Iwata 21 (8) 85
3 Emerson Urawa Reds 18 (1) 116
4 Choi Yong Soo JEF United 17 (4) 100
5 Tatsuhiko Kubo Yokohama Marinos 16 (0) 62
5 Yoshito Okubo Cerezo Osaka 16 (0) 54
7 Magrao Gamba Osaka 15 (1) 64
8 Patrick Mboma Tokyo Verdy 13 (1) 63
8 Oseas Vissel Kobe 13 (0) 71
10 Tatsuya Tanaka Urawa Reds 11 (0) 59
10 Keiji Tamada Kashiwa Reysol 11 (0) 68
10 Ahn Jung-Hwan Shimizu S-Pulse 11 (0) 91
13 Takuya Yamada Tokyo Verdy 10 (0) 31
13 Teruaki Kurobe Kyoto Purple Sanga 10 (1) 46
13 Masashi Oguro Gamba Osaka 10 (0) 70

 

J.League Awards, 2003

MVP Emerson Urawa Reds
Rookie of the Year Daisuke Nasu Yokohama Marinos
Golden Boot Ueslei Nagoya Grampus
Coach of the Year Takeshi Okada Yokohama Marinos
Fair Play Award Yuichi Nemoto Vegalta Sendai
Referee of the Year Toru Kamikawa --

Best Eleven

GK Seigo Narazaki Nagoya Grampus
DF Naoki Matsuda Yokohama Marinos
Keisuke Tsuboi Urawa Reds
Dutra Yokohama Marinos
MF Mitsuo Ogasawara Kashima Antlers
Takashi Fukunishi Jubilo Iwata
Daisuke Oku Yokohama Marinos
Tomoya Fujita Jubilo Iwata
FW Emerson Urawa Reds
Tatsuhiko Kubo Yokohama Marinos
Ueslei Nagoya Grampus