It was with interest that I noted the 20th Anniversary Game banner splashed across the J. League website. Urawa Red Diamonds v Kashima Antlers. Uninspiring choice, I thought. Guess this must be part of a series of celebratory games, I thought. On further inspection, I was wrong. This is it. One game, out of a weekend of 20. One game, out of a season of hundreds.
So why this particular match? One half of the line up is obvious. The other, not so much. Kashima Antlers: Seven time league winner, five time J. League Cup winner. Urawa Red Diamonds: One time league winner, one time J. League Cup winner.
So why Urawa of all teams? These two did build up something of a rivalry over the late 00s, but aside from that what is there to lift this game from the pack? Not much. For one, Urawa can hardly claim to be the best team in the country. Hell, at the time of writing they’re not even the best team in Saitama. I read that they were selected for their support; the highest 14 years from 20. Six years it wasn’t, and two years it was the lowest, but never mind that. Recently it’s been the largest.
But is that it? Is that really the best they could think of? A flimsy piece reasoning at best, and at worst, pure laziness. If we must pluck just one league game for this landmark event, I can easily think of some more fitting ways to mark the occasion. First off, there are several teams with a more impressive J. League record than just getting bums on seats. Yokohama F. Marinos have three titles and a league cup to their name. Jubilo Iwata have three league titles, along with two league cups. If we want to get more symbolic, while the first champions versus the current would have had a nice symmetry, Verdy Kawasaki are otherwise engaged in J2 with a new name. So why not last year’s champions versus the Kashima? Any of the above, while better, would still bring with it one major issue. Who’s going to watch this flagship match? Not most of the country. They’ll be on the way home from their own games. Even if it was played on its own special day would they bother? Impossible to say, but personally? Nah.
What is even set to happen on the big day? Kashima get a round of applause for winning the league 7 times? Two teams take the plaudits on ever one else’s behalf for twenty years of football? Was it honestly a case of simply picking the nicest, easiest to get to stadium from Tokyo so the big wigs can have a pleasant evening and be out in Roppongi by 10pm? I'd hope not, but why else then would it not be staged at the home of the most successful team? Congratulations Urawa, you were chosen for your access and your arm rests.
A better way to mark the 20th year of this great league would be, instead of commandeering a regular game, to have a proper exhibition match. Kashima XI vs J. League Historical XI? Or maybe a good old fashioned East vs West. Perhaps that was all too much work, so hijacking a run of the mill league match and running with that was the easiest option. Hogging all the fun for one league game does seem selfish. What should have been enjoyed by all is closed to all but two teams; two sets of fans. For the other 38 J. League teams and their supporters it ensures the whole rigmarole becomes a complete irrelevance. An landmark which should have been enjoyed by all will pass us by, the opportunity for something memorable lost. Here's hoping the 30th Anniversary Game won't be a similarly fluffed affair.