Sky Sports will unashamedly barrage you that the Premier League is the greatest, fastest, and *any superlative adjective you can shake a stick at* league in the world. In the wake of four English teams making the Champions League quarter-finals, a huge worldwide fan base and an extremely tight title race, I will begrudgingly admit, they have a point.
The more nuanced fan may claim that Serie A is greater, for it is there that you can indulge in 90s nostalgia, sip on your espresso and pay credit to its astute managers conducting a superior tactical battle. Or some people may just point to European winners medals, simply whisper the name Messi, and have a fair justification that it is LaLiga that has the rightful claim to this unofficial accolade.
Perhaps when it comes to culture, no division has quite the same lustre as Germany’s Bundesliga.
These are simply the most popular, reasonable arguments to the pointless debate on which league is the best. There will even be the likes of Barry Glendenning who will fly against the tide and exclaim that the Championship is indeed the most exciting league in the world. I will, however, ask Barry – politely, of course – to look a little further afield, anticipating a response of an eye roll and perhaps a mutterance about beards or craft beer, that J2 is the league where it is at.
Yes, I am here to make the very niche and caveated claim that I think J2 is the greatest second tier in world football. It is a league where the football norms don’t just apply; they are shaken, thrown in the air and inadvertently find themselves flying through a nearby window.
What you might already know about the league is true: unfortunately it is not the one that names Andrés Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa on its roster. J2 is probably most famed for Kazu Miura of Yokohama. Still no bells? Well, he is that 52-year-old guy who might pop up in the trivia book you were given by your great aunt for Christmas. He is the current holder of the world record for oldest goalscorer still playing in professional football, winning the Asian Footballer of the Year award as far back as 1993.
Now I realise this is not the strongest start, and it may make the league look at worst like a novelty and at best a retirement home, especially when you find out that he is hardly an outlier with Matsui, 37, Tulio, 37, Yamamoto, 38, and Homma, 41, all still happily plying their trade a supposed decade after their prime.
So why you should be setting those alarms and watching some J2 football? Where else can I start than at the quintessence of football: the fans. The Japan national team’s fans helped introduce themselves to a worldwide audience at the World Cup in 2018 by their combined conscientiousness of tidying up the stadium at the end of every match – a stark contradiction to the apocalyptic destruction or just general rubble that usually follows fans across the globe.
However, if this thoughtfulness suggests the crowds are perhaps more polite, reserved and more resembling a theatre audience, you would be mistaken. They generate a phenomenal atmosphere in J2 where local pride is taken very seriously. Their enthusiasm in their nonstop support is infectious, jumping up and down without a moment’s break like a steam locomotive piston. In typical Japanese fashion, it’s choreographed to perfection.
Alongside those effervescent supporters are the bizarre and wonderful mascots that accompany all the teams in Japan. Unlike in the UK, the mascot is not a superfluous afterthought whose main contribution is a 50-metre dash once a season. Mascots are a key part of a Japanese club’s identity, representing the local area in a weird cuddly form.
This is probably best epitomised by the family of mascots from the citrus-growing area of Ehime. Here we have ‘Oran-Jay’ – who rather unsurprisingly is an orange, but maybe more surprisingly has been made infinitely more threatening by being given grizzled teeth and a downward facing brow. He is joined pitchside by his more friendly female sidekick, Mikan-Chan – tangerine – and finally the puntastic Lyo-Kahn, a bigger and pulpier tangerine, with Kahn in reference to German goalkeeping legend, Oliver. All in all, it makes for an all-conquering triumvirate of citrus fruit that is the envy of fans across Japan. It’s a surprise they ever lose.
Although nonstop fans and weird mascots add atmosphere and colour, the appeal of J2 football is not just off the pitch: the technical quality of J2 is incredibly high and it is not an unusual thing to see players who have won caps for Japan, Brazil or Uzbekistan.
The technical level of Japanese football was brought to Europe’s attention by pioneers like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, highlighting the quality of coaching across the nation. This emphasis on quick, technical football is something that the league and its managers take great pride in. As a result, 3-6-1 is probably the most popular formation in J2, with possession and short passing seen as the most effective way to win, far more than brute strength, physicality and hoofing the ball skywards.
What makes the league particularly unique, though, is that the superb outfield is well and truly juxtaposed by some terrible and, for all intents and purposes, insane goalkeeping. It’s commonplace to see crosses dropped, shots fumbled and back-passes missed. The wonderful sight of a goalkeeper in the opposition box isn’t a rare sighting either – as in most weekends. The most famed example is perhaps Norihiro Yamagishi grabbing a last-minute winner for Montedio Yamagata against Jubilo Iwata in a playoff semi-final in 2014.
Another aspect of J2 football which is in contrast to the Premier League is that clubs are run sensibly, within budgets and with the team’s locality and identity taken into account. In Europe we are used to hundreds of millions being spent on a good player, or tens of millions for an average player, and it isn’t uncommon to hear fans’ grumblings at the lack of connection between player and club. This is understandable as, in its essence, a club is meant to signify and represent your local area.
J2 does a much better job of sticking to a purer, more innocent time of football, while, although still having transfers – lots of them – they don’t have the same manufactured glitz or commercialisation. Many of these recruits will be young, local players, signed from universities or amateur teams who, far from sitting around making up numbers, are quickly thrust into the first team.
Finally, I will attest that you should watch the J2 as it is the most unpredictable league in the world, from Oita Trinita, who went from J1 to J3 and then back to J1 all in the space of five years, to the current leaders in J2, newly-promoted Ryukyu FC – a tiny Okinawa-based team – who are taking the league by storm with an aggressive press that is shocking their bigger, richer and more established rivals.
The teams who finished in the playoffs last year are currently sitting in seventh, 12th, 16th and 17th, with fresh-from-J1 V-Varen Nagasaki sitting in a solid 20th out of 22 teams. It is additionally refreshing that none of these teams have changed manager. It is very much a J2 trait that a drop in form is just that and it doesn’t have to precede a sacking. Often, the manager will get a whole season to implement his style and prove his worth.
I won’t ever be able to stake a claim that J2 is a league that will be able to compete with the glitz and glamour of many in Europe, however, it has an unpredictability and quirkiness that sets it apart in an era where football is constantly being homogenised. I challenge you to give it a go over a coffee and some marmalade on toast and enjoy an inevitable last-minute win secured thanks to a goalkeeping howler.
By Charlie Houghton @FRsoccerCharlie