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 By John Duerden

J.League seeks to wrestle back spotlight from Chinese Super League

Kashima Antlers vs. FC Tokyo
Kashima Antlers started their 2017 campaign with a defeat to FC Tokyo at the weekend.

Japan's J.League kicked off its 2017 season on Saturday with a typical demonstration of unpredictability with only one of the top four from last year picking up three points. Kashima Antlers, 2016 champs, scored twice against Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in December but failed to do so at home to FC Tokyo at the weekend.

The curtain-raising did not get that much attention outside the country. At the moment, it may not be an exaggeration to say that the Chinese Super League (CSL) is getting more attention than every other Asian league combined.

That is what hundreds of millions of dollars spent on world famous stars will do for a league. It also has helped China surpass its neighbour in terms of average attendance in recent years to become the most-watched in Asia with 2016 figures of just below 18,000 in Japan and just over 24,000 to the west.

Still generally regarded as a superior product on the pitch than China -- though the gap is narrowing with the arrival of the likes of Oscar, Paulinho, Carlos Tevez and Alex Teixeira -- there have been attempts in Tokyo to try and bring more excitement and glamour back to one of Asia's oldest professional leagues.

The first is that authorities have done away with the unloved two-stage system that was reintroduced back in 2015. After a decade of single stage seasons, often with the kind of thrilling title race that European leagues would go crazy for, the bosses decided two years ago to chop the campaign into two halves. The winners of each and another team that had collected the most overall points progressed into the championship play-off system.

The general reaction from the hardcore fans fans was hugely negative while the casual supporters that the league hoped to attract didn't seem that excited either.

So that's off the menu but perhaps more importantly, 2017 marks the first of the 10-year online domestic broadcasting deal between the league and British sports rights group Perform. This is worth $10 billion and a healthy, though as yet undecided, proportion of it, is to filter through to the clubs.

Some of this will have to be spent on upgrading stadiums -- some of the 2002 arenas are showing signs of wear and tear -- but more specifically on internet and broadcasting capabilities. This is expected to make the matchday experience at the stadium or at home, second to none for fans in Japan.

There will also be more money for players and this is necessary if the league is to keep pace with China. There wasn't much to get excited about in the transfer window but there was a genuine attempt by Vissel Kobe to land Lukas Podolski with the club, far from a giant, confident of landing the German star in the summer. There were much vaguer rumours of a move for Robin Van Persie and that was about it.

Older fans will remember how expensive imports such as Zico and Dunga played major roles in the development of the tournament in the 90s. One problem in the J.League in recent years has been that the quality of import has not been as high as it once was. That, coupled, with talented players heading to Europe in greater -- and younger -- numbers, led to something of a drop in quality.

Moves to bring in better players from overseas to play alongside the talented locals is to be welcomed even if the most recent big-name acquisitions did not really work out. Freddie Ljungberg joined Shimizu S-Pulse in 2011 and Diego Forlan headed to Cerezo Osaka in 2014 but neither of these aging stars impressed too much and Osaka ended up relegated in Forlan's debut season.

Cerezo Osaka striker Diego Forlan
Diego Forlan played for Cerezo Osaka between 2014 to 2015.

What will help the J.League overseas is success in the Asian Champions League. Gamba Osaka won the tournament in 2008 but Japan have not had a finalist since. Over in the Middle Kingdom, Guangzhou Evergrande have won two of the last four and it is, again, Chinese teams that are making headlines in the competition.

This is some optimism this time however that Japan's four best clubs are in the mix and these all have decent experience in the event. As well as Kashima there are Gamba, Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale all representing the league. All have the capability to have a good campaign in Asia especially with the entrants from South Korea, the most successful country in the competition, looking unusually vulnerable. Japan could be China's biggest rival this year.

Kashima may have lifted the league trophy -- and notionally be the second best team in the world -- but not all felt the Ibaraki outfit were number one. Urawa Reds slipped up but surely can't be far from securing the first title since their 2006 debut. Kawasaki Frontale have never won but are rarely far away and 2014 champion Gamba are looking dangerous.

And if that quartet get too distracted by Asia, there are others with the capability to put together a domestic challenge. FC Tokyo, Cerezo Osaka and especially Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who won three out of the four titles prior to Kashima's success.

Whatever happens, it will not be boring as Japan seeks to show that it is the J.League and not the Chinese Super League that is Asia's number one.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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