In 1991, Japanese football was at its lowest point. Their top flight is played by amateurs and the Football Association knows something needs to be done.
The birth of the J League soon followed; Japan now had its own professional football league that one day, would become the best in Asia. The dream was to have a successful, sustainable league, one to be proud of – to have a hundred professional football clubs, and lastly, to win the World Cup by 2092. It’s all part of a 100-year vision.
So, over two decades on, is Japan on schedule to match their ambition? One positive sign is that the growth of the sport across the nation has seen interest in their two most popular sports, sumo wrestling and baseball, dwindle.
Before the football boom across Japan, the amateur league (Japanese Soccer League) had only been around for 30 years, until it was replaced by its successor. Although the league reached its peak around the time Japan won bronze in the sport at the 1968 Olympics, the nation’s interest faded and attendances were on a downward slope. It was hardly surprising; it was amateur, after all.
Prior to the all-new league’s inception, Japan were languishing below 40th in the FIFA world rankings and the crowds attending domestic matches were equally as poor as the stadia on show. But as the Asian economy was throbbing around the start of the J League, ambitious clubs were attracting world-famous – mostly Brazilian – footballers, albeit in the latter stages of their careers, to play for them. They included Zico, Dunga and Gary Lineker. Naturally, with players of this quality stepping on to Far Eastern shores, the standard of football across the league increased.
Within three years of the professional league’s first game, Japan rocketed up to 21st in the international rankings and weekly crowds were averaging nearly 20,000. This was all well and good, until an economic crisis hit the Land of the Rising Sun in 1997.
Subsequent attendances were averaging 10,000 and clubs’ sponsors were pulling the plug on their investments, leaving numerous first division names flirting with bankruptcy. The warning signs were clear for all to see and the J-League board needed a plan, not only to help in the short term, but to provide a platform to build on for the future.
This is where the 100-year plan unfolded, with the aim of marking the J League’s centenary anniversary with a football league system consisting of 100 professional entrants.
The league’s board wanted clubs to be prepared for another economic disaster, encouraging them to delve into the community around them and form partnerships with local, smaller companies as well as local grassroots academies. This would promote the sport to youngsters and encourage participation to play as well as attend their local team’s matches.
They felt this was a solid model to build upon and followed it up by implementing the two-tier league format, which would grow as the nation nears its ambitious objective. At the time, the top tier consisted of 16 clubs and the second had ten; now, the J1 League has 18 clubs and the J2 League has 22, an improvement of 14. It’s palpable progress.
Participation in the Asian Champions League has seen J1 League’s top teams compete with the rest of the continent’s elite clubs and the national team is excelling, reaching highs of 21st in the rankings in 2013. Since the birth and growth of the J1 League, Japan’s national team has improved and are now fervently planning for Russia 2018.
But breezing through previous World Cup qualifications was no fluke; granted their opposition is less challenging, as they play largely inferior nations from Asia for their place at the event, but let’s not take anything away from them. They have played at every World Cup since 1998 and their role in the Confederations Cup fixture in 2013 against Italy impressed football fans across the globe.
Under the stewardship of experienced Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni, and now Vahid Halilhodžić, Japan showed tremendous fighting spirit to battle Italy for the full 90 minutes, losing 4-3 in arguably the game of the tournament.
Japan played attacking, possession-based football which made great watching, with both teams playing a high tempo for the whole match. Italy may have been surprised by Japan’s capabilities and went 2-0 in the opening third of the game, with goals from star men Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. The key to Japan’s development, as the game highlighted, is the fact they are now producing stars.
From their most recent squad (May 2017), 14 of the 23 selected ply their trade in Europe. A sizeable numbers of Japanese players play in the Bundesliga, one of the world’s best and most-watched leagues. Promisingly, the number is rising each year. Shinji Kagawa is currently the nation’s biggest star, along with Honda and Shinji Okazaki, of Leicester City.
Kagawa’s rise from the humble surroundings of Higashisumiyoshi-ku to Europe has been meteoric. His football development went hand in hand with Japanese football’s growth and a mere £300,000 move to Borussia Dortmund in Germany was his stepping-stone to playing for England’s most successful club.
A huge part of his development owes much credit to Dortmund, but his skills were seen by the German club, who nurtured talent that was already there. He is a fantastic playmaker who provides the link between the midfield and attack with sublime touches and a range of passing. Though his stint with Manchester United was disappointing, with opportunities limited, many fans pined for his inclusion on a regular basis.
Kagawa’s national teammate Honda, also a midfield dynamo, is currently at AC Milan. He, like Kagawa, has an eye for goal and a great passing range in his locker. His set-pieces are vital for club and country.
Raised around the Japanese football boom, Honda broke into his local professional team Nagoya Grampus when he was still at school. He established himself in the first team before leaving for a two-year stint in Dutch football with VVV-Venlo, then earning a move to Russia. A move to the Rossoneri in 2014 was with a raft of Champions League clubs keen to sign him.
Before the Japanese FA hired Zaccheroni to coach the national team, Honda spoke of the importance of hiring a foreign manager, to bring new ideas and styles to the country and it has certainly done that. At 30, time is running out for the highly regarded midfielder to taste success with the Blue Samurai, but his experience could go further than his playing career. Considering he has played most of his club football outside of Japan, his international experience provides a sound knowledge of the game.
Not only will Honda’s experience count for something, so would that of former footballer and national treasure Hidetoshi Nakata. He was one of the first, and most successful, Japanese footballers to make an impact in European football. He left Japan for Serie A in 1998 to play for Perugia for two seasons before switching to Italian giants Roma before Parma, Bologna and Fiorentina. He won the scudetto with Roma and the Coppa Italia with Parma.
To say he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times around the turn of the century is no mean feat and to be nominated as FIFA’s World Player of the Year shows what kind of impact Nakata had on world and European football. He was also named in FIFA’s top 100 players in 2004, chosen by Pele.
Labelled as ‘Japan’s David Beckham’, Nakata’s legacy can make a lasting impact on his nation, like Beckham’s influence in England. His success in Europe has no doubt played a part in the large contingent of Japanese footballers currently in Europe. His career can encourage Japanese footballers to succeed overseas and he is a tremendous role model for the national game.
One exciting player in England who can hope to emulate the success of Nakata is Ryo Miyaichi of St. Pauli, formlerly Arsenal. Arsène Wenger, who managed in Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight for a year before joining Arsenal, saw Miyaichi’s potential and raw ability after a trial in 2011.
Opportunities were limited for the lightning-quick forward in the Gunners’ first-team, but at only the age of 22, he has time on his side following a move to Germany. Loan spells with Feyenoord and Bolton gave him first-team experience. Raw talent at Miyaichi’s age is important in the development process; he needs nurturing as a diamond in the rough.
Now the model is in place, the standard of football is also improving off the pitch. The stadiums across the top league boast better facilities with greater investment in the two decades of the J League. Some are brand new, some redeveloped, but the standard has been set for the national game with numerous grounds holding more than 40,000 spectators.
Whether the nation can win a World Cup by 2092 remains to be seen, but they look on course to complete the task of being home to 100 professional clubs. Success doesn’t come overnight and the Japanese FA understands that, which is why they set such a lengthy vision. Samurai Blue football is growing rapidly – in quality and popularity – and the number of players receiving opportunities in Europe is increasing.
Look at Belgium; they’re in a period where the national team is bursting with youthful talent and they look like realistic challengers for the 2018 World Cup and beyond. It takes patience, technique and the right way of nurturing, and that is the path Japan seems to be following as part of their vision to provide the national game with a successful, sustainable footballing pyramid.
Japan: World Cup winners. When? Who knows, but you heard it here first.
By George Pitts. Follow @GeorgePitts_