The country that gave the world sushi, mind-boggling technology, Manga comics and inspired the legendary and never-ending film series The Karate Kid has fast established itself as Asia’s footballing Godfather. The legendary Mr Miyagi preached to Daniel-san that Karate lies in the heart and mind, not in the hands, and when it comes to the round-ball the Japanese have shown work-ethic and ambition have cemented their place as Asia’s trailblazers with a little help from their feet.
Japan’s Asian dominance can be traced back to 1993 and the birth of the professional era of football, the J-League. Its predecessor begun life in 1965. The JSL (not to be confused with 2009 UK X-Factor winners and teeny boppers JLS) or Japan Soccer League became the first organised competition with eight amateur company clubs competing for the Championship.
The League was a more open affair pre-professionalism with Tokyo Verdy (then known as Yomiuri Club) largely dominating the JSL but with Urawa Reds (formerly the funky-named Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) chipping in with a championship ever few years and the Yokohoma Marinos (just plain Nissan back then) weighing in with a few trophies of their own as well as various one-hit wonder championship-winning clubs.
Early domestic success spawned an exciting national team, formed from JSL stars that brought home the Bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. However the still amateur league format meant that players worked day jobs for the companies that owned their teams and the talented players packed their tiny bags for Europe. Yasuhiko Okudera became the pioneer for Japanese football as the first professional player to play for a European club, the then impressive FC Köln of Germany. Little did he know that this ballsy step would signal the dawn of professionalism in Japan; his high-profile return home in 1986 being the catalyst. Before then only the God-like Brazilian’s were paid to play by the companies).
Step forward the shiny new J-League. An initial ten club format called J-League 1 was born in May 1993 and second division J-League 2 following later, throwing off the corporate shackles it had been accustomed to. The birth overhauled Japanese sports culture and immediately leap-frogged baseball (professional), golf and sumo wrestling in popularity. Foreign players curiously followed the flood of trillions of Yen, including England legend and choir-boy Gary Lineker who completed two injury plagued seasons before retiring in 1994.
The honeymoon years were exciting and frenzied, the title being shared between four different teams in five years. Plans for expansion were ambitious and relentless. By 1998 the League had grown to 18 teams but the enthusiasm for the League disappeared faster than a Toyko to Osaka ‘Bullet Train’ with the rapid expansion blamed for the decline in popularity. With big wages to pay and the turnstiles rusting due to little movement, Japanese football did not need another kick as it fell. It got it. The Japanese economy took a huge dive and the now sponsor-funded clubs withdrew support and as clubs went broke, other sponsors joined forces to merge their clubs to fight for survival.
The Football Association sensed a catastrophic demise and initiatives were promptly produced such as the long-term goal to make 100 professional clubs by 2092. The original game-style formats such as extra-time and golden-goal in League games began to be phased out as a push to mirror European formats was encouraged. In recent years shrewd and impressive management has placed the J-League as top-dog on the continent being rewarded with the allocation of four Asian Champions League spots in 2009.
The undisputed powerhouse of the J-League has been Kashima Antlers. Formed in 1947 the club have won seven titles since 1993, three coming in the past four seasons. The Antlers at heart bleed Green and Gold, fuelled by their links with former player, World Cup winner Zico. The “White Pele” scored 35 goals in 45 games from midfield and set the tone for the Samba invasion. Seven of their ten managers since 2003 have been Brazilian and almost exclusively every foreign import since has come from the Heart of football. The supporting cast include Jubilo Iwata, Yokohoma F.Marinos and Tokyo Verdy who have shared eight J-League titles between them with the latter now relegated to the J-League 2.
Despite currently being the only League rated ‘A’ Class by the Asian Football Confederation, the J-League sits in an uncomfortable position mirrored across other developing Leagues. The Japanese game is no longer far below European standard and naturally the vultures come calling to cherry-pick any young talent. Big names to leave the Land of the Rising Sun have included Kesiuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan) and Shinji Kagawa (a player who cost 350,000 Euros but on his early Bundesliga performances is worth closer to 20 million Euros). This is threatened further by a contract procedure that appears absurd in the age of commerciality. Mocking the approach by professional baseball teams players are signed on a one-year contract and every faith is placed in them that they will stay forever-more. This optimistic and out of date practice threatens the future and evolution of the League as the aptly titled ‘Zero Yen’ transfer is too good to overlook for European bargain-hunters. There are signs of a change in procedure as a couple of superstars have been signed on 5-year deals, notably 18 year-old jewel and Bayern Munich target Takashi Usami.
Currently the 2011 Season has been rocked, quite literally, by the devastating earthquake in Japan which has brought a halt to the campaign for six weeks. Due to kick-off again on 23 April only one game had been played so far. If the business side of the game is brought up to par with a modern and sustainable template and its core product of players is retained, the exciting future on the pitch will take care of itself for the fanatical Japanese.