Soccer: J1 scraps relegation to protect clubs struggling due to virus

©Kyodo News

When the J-League top flight resumes on Saturday, teams will play without the threat of relegation for the first time since the launch of the second division in 1999.

With the season turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the league has decided to suspend relegation to avoid further disadvantaging clubs who are already struggling.

The four-month-long break prompted by the health crisis, followed by a period of games with no spectators, represents a huge financial hit to clubs. The further loss of revenue and departure of top players following relegation could spell disaster for some.

With the move, the league has also acknowledged that clubs have had unequal preparation for the restart under Japan's coronavirus state of emergency, which was lifted earlier in some parts of the country than others.

The temporary change has widespread backing from managers, who believe removing the threat of demotion can help salvage the season by encouraging a more attack-oriented, entertaining brand of soccer.

Urawa Reds manager Tsuyoshi Otsuki said he expects "more aggressive games" with the potential for a long-term positive effect on the league.

Yokohama FC boss Takahiro Shimotaira, whose club was promoted back to the J1 this season, said he expects teams to take a more creative approach.

"It encourages (managers) to try new things, which can help them build stronger teams," he said.

The J-League has also increased the maximum number of substitutions from three to five per match in line with a temporary rule-change by soccer's world governing body FIFA, aimed at reducing overuse injuries amid heavily condensed schedules.

This change, along with the league's decision to play through international breaks, is likely to yield more playing time for younger players and those on the fringes of squads.

FC Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said the clubs with the deepest talent pools will gain the greatest advantage from the increased number of substitutions.

"A team made up of powerful players is strong," Hasegawa said.

While the coronavirus crisis has thrown up many obstacles, there may also be opportunities for the clubs who can best adapt to the unusual playing conditions.