Futsal league ready for the off

The long-awaited start of the F. League, Japan's first ever national futsal league, is set to take place on Sunday 23 September. With eight founding teams set to contest 21 rounds of matches between now and 17 February 2008, there is nearly five months of entertaining futsal to look forward to. The creation of the league is the natural consequence of the sport's enhanced popularity and status in Japan, where fans are eager to see their teams in action and the crowning of the inaugural national champion.

Although futsal has been popular in many parts of Japan for some time, a fully-fledged national league has never been tried before. However, local champions leagues and semi-national tournaments had been held previously, leading to increased calls for an official domestic championship in recent times. Aiming to meet this demand is the F. League, with its extensive 21-match format raising considerable expectation among supporters and players alike.

For its inaugural season, the F. League will feature one professional side and seven amateur teams. Representing different regions of Japan, the following clubs will become part of futsal history: StellaAmigo Iwate Hanamaki, Bardral Urayasu, Pescadola Machida, Shonan Bellmare, Nagoya Oceans, Shriker Osaka, Deucao Kobe and Vasagey Oita. As can be seen, all of the teams have opted for colourful and evocative names, partly inspired by the international nature of the sport, and partly by the character and spirit of their hometowns.

As to who will go on to take the first F. League title, the smart money is on Nagoya Oceans, who became Japan's first ever professional futsal team in 2006. In line with their newfound status, they went on to take home three major trophies last year, winning the Tokai League, the regional Champions League and an all-Japan tournament in succession. With a large squad, top class facilities and a complete backroom staff, the Oceans will almost certainly be the team to beat.

That said, the remaining seven sides are determined to give Nagoya a run for their money, with Bardral Urayasu perhaps the best placed to cause an upset. As well as boasting more Japanese internationals (past and present) than any other squad and being the longest-established side, Urayasu will also be coached by Tomas "Sito" Rivera Amoros, a tactician with more than 20 years experience in the Spanish league.

Other teams have also been recruiting foreign coaches as preparations intensify for the start of the season, and none of the competing sides should be underestimated. Even StellAmigo, regarded as one of the weaker participants, enjoyed a couple of morale-boosting wins in their friendlies this summer and could continue to surprise some of the stronger sides this season.

Just how competitive and entertaining the league turns out to be will largely determine its success. No one doubts the immense popularity of futsal in Japan, but the extent to which the public will embrace it as a spectator sport remains to be seen. Asked how the F. League aimed to meet this challenge, Chief Operating Officer Kuniya Daini told a press conference on 23 August: "I'd like each of the teams to put down roots in their local communities. I'm also hoping we can put on performances that will wow the fans and show them what the F. League is all about."

The challenge for the clubs will be to convey the attractions of futsal and the power and excitement of a top class league to their local fan base. If successful, this would clearly go a long way to assuring their success. In addition, the F. League has its sights set on courting fans from all over the country. This season, as well as playing seven matches both home and away, each team will also participate in seven fixtures at a neutral venue in the central region of the country.

Another point in the F. League's favour, is that the Japan Football Association and the Japan Futsal Federation have jointly backed the league. To help promote the new organization at the end of last year, they even enlisted the public's help in naming it. While they eventually decided on a very simple title, there is also some deeper meaning behind their choice. Besides standing for "futsal", F represents the league's five keywords: "Fight", "Fun", "Friend", "Fair play" and "Future", as well as the number "5", which, denoting the amount of players on each side, is displayed on the league logo.

With a well thought out motto, a strong group of teams and a well prepared support staff, the F. League is all set for its historic kick off. All that remains now is for Nagoya to get the ball rolling against Kobe at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Gymnasium on 23 September (15:00 pm local time) and for the excitement to begin.

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