As the international reputation of Japanese soccer continues to grow — especially in light of a surprisingly good World Cup performance— so, too, does its domestic scene.
A mere 25 years after the country’s first pro organization — the Japan Professional Soccer League — was set up, what started as a single division of eight clubs has now grown into a three-division league with a total of 54 teams.
If we compare the divisions of the Japanese league to that of, say, England then the first division J1 League is the top tier, the equivalent of the Premier League. One level down is the J2 League, equivalent to English Football League Championship. At the lowest tier, the J3 League is equivalent to League One.
While the J.League has proven to be a great success in the quarter century since its inception, the fact remains these are still very young clubs and in their current form, lack the history and the political subtexts that compel many fans elsewhere in the footballing world to pledge allegiance a particular team. For example, in Spain teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona have the Catalan separatist versus Spanish loyalist angle, Argentina’s Boca Juniors versus River Plate pits the working class against the establishment and in my hometown, Glasgow, the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers stems from the fallout of Irish catholic immigration in the late 1800s. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these narratives don’t really exist in Japanese football.
Some clubs here, though, have carved out a distinct identity for themselves that will appeal to certain types of soccer enthusiasts.
An important footnote before we begin. The season schedule in Japan is different from the August to May schedule most European fans are familiar with. The J.League runs from the end of February until the beginning of December, with the final Emperor’s Cup match in December bringing the curtain down on the season.
So, what kind of football fan are you and what J.League team should you support? Here are five teams you might consider following depending on your own attitude as a football fan.
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