J League History: 1998
If 1995 marked an early peak for the J.League, 1998 was the lowest point of its slump. Even before the season got under way, it was apparent to many people that the league had attempted to expand too fast. One team joined the league at the start of the year -- Consadole Sapporo -- bringing the total number of teams to 18. However, having spent heavily on foreign talent, and overpaid many of the domestic players, many teams found themselves in financial troubles, including even traditional powers like Verdy Kawasaki, JEF United Ichihara and Yokohama Flugels. Despite the interest generated by the 1998 World Cup, fan attendance slipped to its lowest point ever, and teams that had overinvested in players found themselves in financial crisis. Before the year was half over, the league would already be planning to restructure.
The format for the league and cup competitions was left unchanged in 1998, and appears to have achieved the desirable balance between the demands on players and the number of games needed to attract fan interest. From 1997 through 2005 the league format remained unchanged. Teams played a single round robin in each stage, with the team that played at home in the first stage playing away in the second stage. Most (though not all) league matches took place on Saturdays, while Nabisco Cup matches were held on Wednesdays. The point scoring system was left the same as in 1997, though it would get a final tweak at the end of the season. During 1998, teams received three points for a win in regulation time, two points for a win in extra time and one point for a win on PKs.
Although average attendance in the league was down, this was partly a reflection of the weak drawing power of the bottom-dwellers. Clearly, the J.League had attempted to expand too fast, and once the surge of "faddish" popularity was over, many of the lower ranked teams could not attract enough local support to justify a full-fledged J.League team. On the other hand, the top teams in the league were supported by mobs of faithful fans, and the excitement of league play could not have been greater.
The developing rivalry between Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata reached a fever pitch in 1998, with the two teams contesting both the league championship AND the finals of the Nabisco Cup. This year, Antlers took revenge for their defeat in the finals of 1997, clinching both the Nabisco Cup and the League championship making them the second team in history to win the double (Verdy Kawasaki did so in 1994, Jubilo Iwata would do so in 1999 and Kashima would repeat the feat in 2000 as part of an unprecedented treble which has only been matched once, by Gamba Osaka in 2014).
Despite the excitement at the top of the table, the strains in the league were already apparent by the midseason break. In a bid to restructure, the league decided to adopt a two-division structure, which would allow some of the smaller teams to remain intact yet avoid the overwhelming financial burden of remaining competitive in the first division.
To achieve this, it was decided that promotion and relegation would be introduced at the end of the season, and with relegation, the number of teams in the J.League first division (hereafter to be known as "J1") would be reduced to 16. The two relegated teams would be joined by all JFL members that could meet the necessary financial and technical obligations in a "J2" division. The JFL would continue as a semi-amateur league from which teams could be promoted to J2 once they met the necessary requirements. While this restructuring made logical sense, it nearly deteriorated into farce.
After the Yokohama Flugels folded (as discussed in detail below) the promotion/relegation playoff was modified to include just five teams, competing for three places in the J1. The format for the promotion/relegation competition was suitably bizarre, considering all the other strange things that were taking place in the league at the same time. First, Kawasaki Frontale (the lone representative from the JFL) was matched against the team that finished last in the J.League that season. The loser was automatically eliminated, and went into the group of teams that would form the J2. Then the other four teams played home and away series, with the winners staying in the J1 and two losers playing ANOTHER home and away series to decide who else would be relegated.
Kawasaki Frontale failed to pass the first round, and after all was said and done, Consadole Sapporo was the other team that ended up being relegated. In subsequent years, promotion and relegation became a simple matter of the top two teams in J2 advancing and the bottom two teams in J1 being relegated.<th">Kawasaki Frontale
Result: Kawasaki Frontale stays in J2. Avispa Fukuoka moves on to round 2
Result: JEF United and Vissel Kobe stay in the J1 division.
Result: Avispa Fukuoka remains in J1
Promotion/Relegation and the Flugels Follies
At mid-season, the JFA recognised that their plans to develop a popular and profitable domestic league were in jeopardy. Though the J.League had attracted a fairly solid fan base, their attempts to expand too rapidly had left a number of teams in dire straits. Those with limited fan bases and weak financial support were deep in the red, and two or three were on the verge of collapse. The situation was made worse by the fact that some of the team sponsors (in many cases, the corporations that spawned the team back in the JSL days) were in financial difficulty, and wanted to pull out of their obligations.
To address this situation, the league decided to introduce a two-division system. The second division would consist of the smaller teams, particularly those from less-populous towns. Presumably, this would not require as much of an investment by sponsors, and the focus on less- famous players would help relieve the heavy burden of paying salaries. Meanwhile, the financially healthy and popular teams that remained at the core of the top division (J1) could continue to compete at a high level. Promotion and relegation would be introduced on a European model, with two teams going up and two teams going down, each year.
To establish the two divisions, though, a special promotion/relegation system would have to be introduced in the first year in order to reduce the number of teams in the top division from 18 to 16. The league decided to make the bottom four teams in the J.League (J1) play off against the top two teams in the JFL (soon to become the J2) for two spots in the top division. The original format called for the top JFL team to play the 18th team in the J.League and the second place team in the JFL to play against the 17th-placed J.League team. The two losers would drop immediately into the J2, while the two winners, and the 15th- and 16th-ranked J.League teams would play a round robin to decide which two would advance.
In theory, these plans made sense. However, they came a bit too late to save the most seriously deficit-laden teams. The changes also did not go far enough in forcing teams to maintain financial stability. Though the J.League wanted to exercise oversight of team finances, there was considerable resistance from a few teams. The biggest point of contention was a clause that allowed the J.League front office to intervene if a team registered financial losses for more than two years in a row. Today, that rule is a source of pride, and one of the reasons for the J.League's remarkable record of economic stability. But it took a public fiasco, at the close of the year, to convince member teams to accept the new rule.
The aforementioned fiasco -- a drama of Shakespearean proportions -- would also throw the promotion/relegation series into turmoil, and dominate newspaper headlines for the final two months of the year. Just a weeks before the end of the season the chief sponsors of Yokohama Flugels -- All Nippon Airways and Sato Kogyo -- announced that because of the financial difficulties faced by both the Flugels and the two sponsors themselves, they would withdraw their sponsorship of the team.
While it was hard to argue against such a move (after all, business corporations have to make decisions based on business logic), the subsequent actions of ANA and Sato Kogyo made a mockery of the idea that J.League clubs represented local towns and cities, rather than corporations. From its inception, the J.League took pains to distinguish itself from the corporate-owned and corporate-run baseball leagues in Japan. Time and again, both the league and the clubs themselves insisted that "J.League clubs belong to you -- the fans." Yet on a cold dark day in late October, Yokohama fans awoke to discover that their beloved Flugels were being boxed up and shipped off, without even so much as a parting: "thanks for all the fish." A handful of executives in a Yokohama high-rise suite had decided to dissolve one of the League's most well-supported teams, and sell off the pieces. Without even asking fans for their opinions on the matter, ANA and Sato were going to shut the doors of the clubhouse and transfer all the players to cross-town rivals Yokohama Marinos.
This latter point was particularly galling, especially since newspapers reported that ANA was receiving a large sum of money from the Marinos, for handing over something that the fans always assumed was their very own. Shutting down the club unilaterally was bad enough, but selling out to the team's fiercest local rivals was a cold slap in the face for the Fulie Faithful. European fans should try to imagine what would happen if Tottenham Hotspur suddenly announced that they were merging with Arsenal, and all Tottenham fans should hereafter switch their support to the Gunners, or if Celtic fans were informed that their years of loyalty and support for the team would hereafter be reduced to just a middle initial in the soon-to-be-created "Glasgow C. Rangers"!
Fans and players alike felt betrayed, and their ire was directed at not only the sponsor corporations, but the J.League as well. If club teams were supposedly independent of their "sponsors", then surely the Flugels deserved a chance to seek new support before the club was just broken up and sold off. Even before the ink was dry on the "Yokohama Flugels Disbanded" headline, fan club leaders, players and lower-level team officials were insisting that they were not going anywhere. Though the Internet era was still in its infancy, a deluge of e-mails and faxes surged through the streets of Yokohama, asking supporters to gather and help protect the beloved Flugels. Before darkness had even begun to fall, nearly a thousand angry, blue-shirted fans had congregated in front of the ANA corporate offices (Sato Kogyo was located in Tokyo, too far away for protesters to target effectively). When the fan club leaders were refused a meeting with ANA executives, the crowd surged into the lobby en masse, and took control of the building.
What followed was a media event that shook the entire country. TV news programmes broadcast ugly scenes of team executives scurrying out back doorways and racing away as their black limousines were pelted with raw eggs. The crowd of fans in the lobby -- ranging from grey-haired, besuited salarymen and little old ladies to Flugels-kit-clad toddlers and their mothers -- faced down a squad of thoroughly embarrassed policemen, and insisted that if the authorities tried to clear the lobby, they would have to drag the little kids and old obaa-chans out by force, kicking and screaming all the way. The tension only subsided when a cool-minded Yokohama cop donned a Flugels jersey and assured the crowd that nobody was being evicted. The police were only there to ensure that ANA employees and fans alike behaved like civilized adults, and reached a compromise.
The uproar shocked the entire J.League establishment, who until this point had little concept of how important team loyalty had become to many football fans in Japan. Naturally, fans of other J.League clubs were quick to support the Flugels protesters, and though both ANA and the J.League insisted that the sale of the Flugels could not be reversed, the protesters won many major concessions before finally agreeing to go home. But the bad publicity for ANA and Sato Kogyo was far from over. The players were so incensed at the way the sponsors had treated them, that many covered the logos on their uniforms with black masking tape, when they took the pitch for the remaining league games. Fans followed their lead, draping banners, bedsheets and any other material at hand over the advertising hoardings in the stadium, to prevent them from having any advertising value. All of this, naturally, was captured and broadcast repeatedly on television. At first, many in the news media saw this as a sign that the J.League was on the verge of collapse.
However, as the story progressed, it turned from fiasco into storybook fantasy. Inspired to prove their devotion to the team, players suddenly were galvanized into an unstoppable force, on the pitch, while fans packed into the stadiums not only to support the players, but as an act of defiance against the corporate executives who had stolen away their team. With company logos covered over and fans cheering them on, the Flugels battled their way into the final of that year's Emperor's Cup. On New Year's Day, 1999, the Yokohama Flugels played the last game of their team's existence, and as fairy tales usually go, they emerged triumphant, winning the first -- and only -- trophy in Flugels history.
In the end, this incident had some very positive effects on the League. It became obvious, both to the J.League itself and to the corporate sponsors, that they could no longer run teams as private fiefdoms and sources of corporate publicity. Instead, they needed to build stronger ties to their local communities and fan clubs. Many now view "the Flugel Follies" as the first sign that the J.League was coming of age. Nobody would throw raw eggs at cars or court arrest by occupying an office building merely for a "fad". The deep emotional ties that Flugels fans and players had established with each other, and with their club, were clearly something new on the Japan sports scene, and the press was quick to take notice. Among other things, the J.League strengthened the rules that separated club management and finances from those of their corporate sponsors. When Bellmare Hiratsuka's owners pulled out, the following December, that team was rescued by new sponsors and reborn as Shonan Bellmare. Players who were still under contract were sold off and the funds were set aside to support the new club. Since then, several other teams have faced financial crises, and have gone through similar stages of reorganization. But since the "Flugel Follies" no other professional club or team has ever been disbanded.
In the end, even the most heroic efforts of the fan club could not rescue the Flugels name. However, J.League management was so moved (and perhaps, frightened) by the demonstration of loyalty that they granted the Flugels fan club permission to establish a new team under a different name, and compete for re-admission to the J.League. Thus, Yokohama FC was born as a semi-amateur third division club. A few of the original players even stuck around, and were on the roster to see their team reborn as a J.League club. In a bit of poetic symbolism they adopted the team logo of a Phoenix rising from the ashes -- a sign that for a football fan, your loyalty to the team never really dies.