Photo/Illutration Supporters of the Kashima Antlers during a game at the Kashima Stadium in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, on June 11, when they were allowed to cheer loudly as long as they were wearing face masks under a trial program to ease precautions against the novel coronavirus. (Takeshi Teruya)

KASHIMA, Ibaraki Prefecture--Loud cheering among fans during a J.League match at a stadium here June 11 marked an audible sign of relaxing protocols against the novel coronavirus.

It was the first time in more than two years that fans were given almost free rein to root for their teams.

The match between the Kashima Antlers and Avispa Fukuoka at the Kashima Stadium was the first where spectators at a major professional sport were allowed to behave--on a trial basis--like they did in pre-pandemic times.

The fans still have to take precautions, though.

When cheering, they must face forward and wear masks of unwoven cloth, which are deemed to offer more protection than regular cloth coverings. They are not permitted to eat or drink while cheering.

“Cheer loudly” areas were set up behind the goals of the two teams, comprising 1,700 seats in total.

But every alternate row and every other seat had to remain vacant in the areas.

Still, spectators were excited at being able to do some of the things they used to.

“This is a nice way to relieve my stress as it distressed me that we were not permitted to let players hear our cheers over the past two years,” said a 54-year-old female supporter of the Kashima Antlers.

J.League plans to introduce the “cheer loudly” setup to other games in stages.

Six or so games are expected be held to assign up to 7,000 seats under this arrangement in July.

After analyzing the results, J.League will allow teams to adopt the arrangement if they choose.