J.League season kicked off recently with 18 teams all aspiring to hold aloft the J.League trophy come December.
But that begs the question - is 18 teams too many?
For those who listen to the excellent JTalk Podcast, they would've heard the animated Cesare Polenghi pose that very question in the final podcast last season. And it's a question that deserves serious consideration.
As discussed in my previous column, the number of Japanese players moving to Europe is growing steadily every year. This cannot help but have an affect on the quality of the league. While there are young talents coming through, invariably they too are leaving for Europe.
While Japan has a seemingly endless production line of talent, it can only stretch so far. As the top tier of players head to Europe, those players who would ordinarily be squad players, or playing in J2, are having to step up to fill the void. That's not intended as a slight on their ability; it is just the raw fact of the matter.
The K League Classic has undertaken a similar contraction in recent years, from 16 teams to 12 for that very reason - to increase the quality of the top tier as they introduced a new second division.
The Thai Premier League will also undertake a contraction in coming years as they have come to realize the rapid growth in recent years hasn't necessarily been a good thing for the league.
Sadly the J.League missed a golden opportunity to undertake a comprehensive review of its league structure with the introduction of J3 this season. With 18 teams in J1 and 22 in J2 the introduction of J3 was the perfect opportunity to cull some teams from both divisions, with those relegated from J2 forming the bulk of teams in J3, providing a stronger base for the division than promoting teams from the amateur JFL.
While the J.League see the introduction of J3 as the perfect vehicle to achieve their goal of a team in each of Japan's 47 prefectures, it could still have been achieved as J3 expanded in future years. Currently 36 prefectures have teams across the three divisions.
Back to J1, however. What is the perfect number of teams? Is it 14? 16?
It would be hard to see four teams cut from J1, on face value it appears to be too drastic. But again, that is what the K League Classic has done recently (16 to 12). If you want to create the ultimate 'Premier League' with the absolute best talent in Japan then 14 could possibly be the ideal number, ensuring that each club has a squad of relatively equal strength.
Then what to do with the fixture? A 14-team league means only 26-rounds using the traditional home and away format. That is clearly not enough. It would require a solution similar to the K League Classic where after 26 games the season is split into two (top seven, bottom seven) with each team playing the other six teams in their group one more time in a Championship and Relegation Group, creating a 32-round season, two less than they currently play.
On paper this could also satisfy the J.League's desire for a 'two-stage' season to grow declining attendances, with the final six games of the season played between the best (and worst) teams ensuring a thrilling climax to the season.
Looking at J2, a reduction from 22 to 18 teams would be the ideal situation. This allows for a simple 34-game home and away season, plus playoffs. With the added teams relegated from J1 (assuming a 14-team league), this means eight teams would have to have been relegated from J2 to create J3. Too much for one season, clearly, which is why with a little forward planning this could have been achieved over two seasons (two teams from J1 each season and four from J2 each season).
After the first season of relegation from J2, four new teams could have been added to J3 to ensure an eight-team league for its debut season, with the extra four relegated teams joining the following year to create a 12-team league.
Alas, that opportunity has since passed, but the same forward planning can still be made to achieve the same result.
The proposition wouldn't be popular, especially with the clubs most likely to face relegation from J1 and J2, but it would be in the best interests of the overall league structure and football in Japan.
So, what do you think? At 18-teams, is the J.League currently too big?
© Paul Williams & Soccerphile