With the coronavirus pandemic leaving most fans in front of their screens instead of at the stadium, finding new ways to communicate has become more vital than ever for the J. League.
One of its biggest assets in bringing fans closer — even as they have been forced to physically distance — has been vice chairman Hiromi Hara, the 63-year-old former coach who has become the face of the league’s online presence.
Hara, a forward in his playing days with 75 caps for Japan’s national team who later managed Urawa Reds and FC Tokyo, was an early adopter of Twitter long before it became one of the country’s most important internet platforms.
As technical director of the Japan Football Association, he shared photos and observations from Samurai Blue’s untelevised journey to Yemen for an Asian Cup qualifier in January 2010, giving fans — and JFA officials — an unexpected glimpse behind the scenes.
“I made some mistakes at the time, like tweeting about injuries,” Hara told From the Spot in a recent interview. “Back then there weren’t any best practices. Now, you have to think about what’s OK to tweet.
“At the same time, if you don’t tweet anything interesting, nobody will react. You want people to be interested and to create a positive discussion, so I think about the timing.”
After losing to Kozo Tashima in a narrow January 2016 election for the JFA’s presidency, Hara was poached by J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai to serve as his second in command. Since then, Hara has used his strong relationship with front offices across the league to oversee on-the-pitch issues while looping in a new generation of fans who have tuned in since the start of the DAZN era.
His regular YouTube series “J. League TV,” launched at the start of the 2019 season, became a vital source of information during the early stages of the pandemic, with Hara walking fans through detailed explanations of major developments.
Half livestream, half talk show, the series has expanded to nearly 300 episodes and regularly features long interviews with players and coaches that Hara has come to know well over his career.
“I think younger fans may not have known who I was, but over time it’s become fun to do,” Hara said. “Lots of different types of fans have responded to it.
“People recognize me even when I’m wearing a mask because they saw me on YouTube.”
The show Hara gets the most recognition for, however, is “Judge Replay,” a weekly series that reviews complicated — and controversial — officiating decisions by J. League referees.
On the show, Hara and a rotating cast of commentators, former international referees and members of the JFA’s referee committee discuss incidents ranging from handballs and penalties to hard tackles and offsides. No incident is off limits, and Judge Replay has not shied away from focusing on hot-button moments such as the infamous May 2019 “phantom goal” between Urawa Reds and Shonan Bellmare that spurred the league to implement video replay.
“Through Judge Replay a lot of people have learned the rules of the game, and there’s been an increase in respect for referees and greater acknowledgement of how difficult it is,” Hara said. “We’ve had so many discussions about how hard it is to make those calls in the moment.
“And because of that, fans realize that referees really are incredible, to be able to make such decisions in a split second, and they understand rules they didn’t before like ‘DOGSO’ (denial of a goal-scoring opportunity).”
An increase in transparency is one of several changes Hara has sought for Japanese officiating, which is currently overseen entirely by the JFA. In order to improve accountability, he hopes for the J. League and JFA to establish a professional referee organization similar to England’s Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), which is jointly funded by the Premier League and the Football Association.
Another of Hara’s missions has been to reduce the number of fouls and urge players not to fall as soon as they feel contact — things he feels are necessary to create a “tougher and fairer league.”
“Before each season I’ve gone to each club, shown them footage and told them, ‘This isn’t a foul, you need to keep playing,” he said. “We’re doing that every year, and now red and yellow cards have gone down.
“We’re trying to keep the flow of play going as much as possible, and I think we’re making progress. But Europe-based players still say that J.League players fall too easily, so we have to keep working on it.”
Reducing stoppages — and encouraging attackers to persist when they encounter defenders — are steps Hara believes are vital toward creating more exciting viewing experiences.
“In the old days you could score one goal and park the bus, but now that isn’t acceptable,” he said. “Now everyone is spending money to come to the stadium, and they don’t want to see one goal, they want to see two or three.
“You can’t build an audience like that … You have to go for more goals. That’s what soccer is becoming around the world. It’s not just about winning, it’s about creating a club’s style, about showing the abilities of all the players. You need coaches and clubs who understand that or fans won’t support them.”
For Hara, creating a club’s style means establishing a consistent philosophy and vision from the top team all the way down to the academy levels, something that many J. League clubs are yet to achieve. To that end, the league’s Project DNA has sought to enable clubs to produce not only talented players but also coaches and front-office employees.
“A club president is supposed to deliver results, whether that’s a title or earning promotion,” Hara said. “But at the same time as you’re making the top team stronger, you have to have mid- and long-term visions.
“It’s not the kind of thing you’ll see results in right away, but for example, even when the club’s president or top-team manager changes, we want to see the tradition of that vision continue.”
One of the most important keys to creating such a cycle will be creating higher value in players through stronger contracts, eliminating so-called “zero-yen transfers” that have seen Japan’s young talent poached by European clubs for free.
While he agrees with criticism that has long accompanied such moves, Hara notes that part of the issue lies with Japan’s strong high school and university systems, which give younger players more freedom in picking attractive J. League destinations.
“If a player’s good enough to represent Japan at the youth level, agents will recommend they go to high school so they have more options than they would going through academies,” Hara noted. “If you’re coming from FC Tokyo’s academy you can only really go to FC Tokyo, but from (national high-school champion) Aomori Yamada you can go to any club.”
“We want smaller clubs to be able to bring on those good players and sell them to bigger clubs or overseas and be able to invest that money back into their academies. But under the current rules, because we don’t have a draft … It’s hard to make that change.
“This was something we really wanted to focus on over the last two years, and unfortunately we weren’t able to do so because of the pandemic, but everyone understands that this is an issue and I think we’ll work on it in 2022.”
The most important thing that clubs will work on in 2022, however, will be getting fans back into stadiums after two years of sharply reduced attendances caused by the pandemic. While the league hopes to open stands to 100% capacity for the Feb. 18 start of the J1 season, Hara understands the frustration of fans who will not yet be allowed to sing and chant — even if he does see some positives in the new style of support that has emerged.
“People are watching the action more closely and reacting to good plays, and that’s a refreshing way of enjoying the match,” he said. “The players have noticed too, when fans react to a big play or when they sigh after a miss.
“You wouldn’t hear that before the pandemic when people were singing and clapping the whole time, but I like it and I think some fans agree. I think after the pandemic, the style of cheering will change across the league.”
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