The J.League was formally founded in 1992, and in its initial season, which kicked off in early 1993, there were ten teams. The league was founded in response to rising interest in football in Japan following the national teams exciting (but eventually unsuccessful) run for qualification in the 1994 World Cup. The league was formed of teams from the former Japan Football Association, which had been a semi-professional league for about 12 years prior to 1993. The ten original teams played each other twice in each stage (four times over the course of the year), for a total of 18 matches per stage.
By 1992, many of the teams were flush with cash, and football was extremely trendy with young people, drawing large crowds and big sponsorships. As a result, many teams were able to afford big talent from overseas, including players like Zico (Kashima Antlers), Ramon Diaz (Yokohama Marinos) and Pierre Littbarsky (JEF United). Not surprisingly, the two dominant teams from the JSL -- Yokohama Marinos and Verdy Kawasaki -- were top contenders, but the surprise of the league was Kashima (the former Sumitomo Heavy Industries), which went from an also-ran in the JSL to the first ever Stage champion, thanks to the contributions of Zico and fellow Brazilian Alcindo. In response, Kashima fans adopted Zico as a local hero, if not a local god. In future years, the Zico franchise in Kashima would continue, but it all started with the eventful campaign of 1993.
When the league was first established, many of the organizers were worried that Japanese fans would have difficulty developing a taste for the sport, and in order to make the matches more interesting, the J.League adopted some slightly unusual rules. All matches were played to a victory. If there was no winner at the end of 90 minutes, two 15-minute extra time periods were played using a golden goal rule. Whichever team scored first in the extra time period was the winner. If there still was no victor at the end of the two extra time periods, the match would go to PKs. Regardless of how a team won, they would receive 3 points for the victory.
The league would tinker with the scoring formula in subsequent years to make it more and more similar to other leagues around the world. However, the early years were characterized by a lot of very exciting contests that were decided in a flurry of action, with a golden goal celebration. Though the format of the league has changed, the basic game philosophy that developed in those early years has persisted. As a result, even today teams rarely play for a draw, and matches in the J.League are typically nail-biters right to the end. Whatever one might think about the strange rules that the League used in its formative years, it is hard to argue that the football which emerged in Japan is uniquely wide-open and exciting. Matches tend to be a lot more evenly contested than those in most European leagues, and scores tend to be higher. Hopefully these characteristics will persist even now that the League has adopted the global standard for scoring wins, draws and losses.
In the second half of the inaugural season, traditional powerhouse Verdy Kawasaki (formerly Yomiuri FC) returned to their former dominant form, and achieved an easy stage victory. In fact, this would be one of the earliest-decided championships ever in the J.League. Verdy clinched the second stage crown with three matches left to play.
The first championship series was a very flamboyant affair. The series was held in the January of the following year (1994), and thus came right on the heels of the Emperors Cup. While this scheduling decision certainly ensured that there were a lot of fans tuned in on TV, for obvious reasons it would become impractical as time went on. Within a few years the series had been moved back to November or December, and it would remain that way until the Championship Playoff system was disbanded, in 2005.
Verdy was widely expected to dominate the championship series, and indeed, they managed a comfortable 2-0 victory in their home leg. However, when the series moved to Kashima, an upset seemed to be in the making. Alcindo scored an early goal, and Kashima was pressing hard for the goal which would equalise the series. Then, in a call that would be disputed for years to come, Verdy was awarded a PK on what looked like a harmless shouder charge. Zico was so incensed with the call that he walked over and spat on the ball as it sat on the penalty spot.
With this action, Zico earned a red card and doomed Antlers to defeat in the first-ever championship, but in the same stroke, he forever won the hearts of Kashima fans, who understood that this could only be the reaction of a player whose heart was truly devoted to his team. As thrilling -- and as deserved -- as Verdys championship may have been, it was Zico who taught Japan what the Beautiful Game was really all about. In every sense of the word, the J.Leagues opening season set the standard for what would become a truly magical football league in the years and decades to come.
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