OPINION: Japan’s woeful Emperor’s Cup in desperate need of rescue

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Shimizu S-Pulse v Gamba Osaka - Emperor's Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg

Where were you on the rainy Wednesday night when Montedio Yamagata became the first Tohoku side in over 80 years to advance to the Emperor’s Cup final, where they’ll face a resurgent Gamba Osaka who could complete a domestic double or even a historic treble?

Odds are you were at home, unless you were one of just 8,929 fans who made it out to either Osaka’s Yanmar Stadium Nagai (2,221) or Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium (6,708) in order to watch one of the lowest-attended semifinals in the tournament’s modern history.

The figure represents less than 24% of the tournament’s average semifinal draw of 37,467 over the previous nine years, an embarrassment for the Football Association (JFA) who organize the yearly competition.

Wednesday’s low attendance resulted from a variety of factors, with chilly temperatures and rain across Japan the one thing out of the JFA’s control.

Although the semifinals are usually played on December 29 (three days before the traditional New Year’s Day final), this year’s took place in late November; the tournament will conclude on December 13 in deference to next January’s Asian Cup. An anomaly, yes, but one that doesn’t bode well for a final scheduled to be played in Yokohama’s cavernous Nissan Stadium due to the reconstruction of Tokyo’s National Stadium.

This brings us to the matter of venues; Gamba and Shimizu S-Pulse, teams from western and central Japan, were forced to play in eastern Tokyo, while JEF Chiba United (east of Tokyo) and Montedio (considerably north of Tokyo) traveled to Osaka for their match.

Although JFA officials would likely argue in favor of ‘neutral’ venues, in reality this has never stopped matchups between Kanto teams in Tokyo before; while swapping venues would have benefited Gamba and JEF supporters, it also would have allowed more S-Pulse and Montedio fans to make the trek and perhaps brought overall attendance to above 10,000.

Like other national tournaments around the world, Japan’s oldest football competition has struggled to maintain its relevance in recent years. But whereas England’s FA Cup and Germany’s DfB Pokal have a certain aura of unpredictability and magic, the Emperor’s Cup has simply grown stale.

The last real change to the format came in 2009, when clubs joined from the second round rather than the third (J2) or fourth (J1). And unlike England, where fourth-division Cheltenham Town can host Chelsea, most Emperor’s Cup fixtures are played at the home of the ‘bigger’ club either due to scheduling concerns or lack of funding.

Such was the case of Kansai Regional League (fifth division) outfit Nara Club, who upset J1 side Vegalta Sendai in the second round of this year’s tournament. While they could have potentially hosted their third round match against Jubilo Iwata, instead the semi-professional club sold hosting rights to their J2 opponents, who easily won 5-0 in front of just 2,666 fans.

While lower-league clubs such as Nara may lack the facilities of J-League sides, a visit by a well-traveling team such as Urawa Reds or FC Tokyo could be a huge financial benefit for a smaller club, in addition to bringing the excitement of a big match to the local area.

But it’s not just in the choice of venues that the Emperor’s Cup is lacking: the tournament has been poorly promoted for many years, with national public broadcaster NHK holding a monopoly on rights. Additionally, an onerously restrictive accreditation process prevents many Japanese media from covering the tournament, often leaving press boxes as barren as the stands.

Most conspicuous of all is the absence of any cooperation from the J-League, who seemingly go out of their way to ignore the tournament despite their clubs winning it every year. While both the league and the JFA are based in the same downtown Tokyo office building, they are rarely unified, with different sponsors and seemingly uncoordinated aims. Although some leagues might see their FA’s cup tournament as an opportunity to promote the sport in a developing market, the J-League have chosen to take their ball and go home.

So what’s next for the Emperor’s Cup? First comes the December 13 final, which will surely struggle to fill the downtown Yokohama stadium’s 70,000-seat capacity. Gamba fans will likely turn out in droves , but let’s not forget that they and Sanfrecce Hiroshima left about 22,000 seats unfilled at this year’s Nabisco Cup final in Saitama Stadium. Montedio’s average attendance in 2014 was just 6,113; how many will turn up on match day?

There is some hope for 2015 and beyond: next year’s final will return to Tokyo on New Year’s Day, with Ajinomoto playing the host on January 1, 2016. JFA managing director Hiromi Hara has indicated that the different venues could be used until the new National Stadium is completed ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and it’s possible that the final could one day be played in Kansai or elsewhere in Japan.

That said, a seeding system that could see AFC Champions Leagues participants receiving a bye to the fourth round will make for a confusing and unbalanced bracket, and the tournament’s venue selection policy looks unlikely to change.

The JFA would greatly benefit from a long and hard look at Australia’s recently-launched FFA Cup, which has brought excitement to the country’s lower leagues. America’s US Open Cup, the world’s third-longest-running football tournament, is a positive example of how a competition underserved by traditional media can benefit from savvy internet marketing.

But until Japan’s football authorities decide to put aside their petty differences and work proactively to improve the situation, the Emperor’s Cup will, like most of the stadiums throughout this year’s tournament, remain mostly empty.