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 History of Japanese Football

Christopher Hood casts a learned eye over the history of Japanese football, on both club and national level

Photograh of Japan's Brightess Star - Hidetoshi NakataJapanese football has yet to make much of an impression on the world stage, despite Hidetoshi Nakata's having made his mark with Perugia and Roma in Italy's Serie A. The general perception however is that Japan is new to football and not very good at it. In fact, football has a long history in Japan.

Football reached Japan within ten years of the foundation of the Football Association (FA) in London in 1863, with matches taking place between some English teachers and their pupils in Tokyo and among Western sailors in Kobe in 1871.

The officially recognised date for the birth of football in the country is in September 1873 with a game at the Naval Academy in Tokyo Bay organized by a British officer, Archibald Douglas, and his men. The amused Japanese spectators assumed it was a version of kemari, an ancient Japanese ballgame connected with the Shinto religion. The first competitive match in the country is reputed to be the 1888 game between the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club and the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, a rivalry that continues to the present day.

It was not until 1921, however, that the Japanese Football Association (JFA) was established. After reports reached London of the All Japan Schools Soccer Tournament held in Osaka in 1918, the English FA magnanimously dispatched a replica of the FA Cup as a gift to the fledgling footballing cousin . There was no equivalent Japanese football organization to receive it, so one was created.

Fifteen years later, Japan was represented at the Berlin Olympics with a team mostly made up of college students. Japan lost, and with it the chances of the sport gaining similar levels of popularity it was now enjoying in Europe. Baseball took the lead from this time, with a formal league being created in the same year.

In the 1960s football became more popular and better organised. Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics and again Japan entered a team. This time they progressed to the last eight, where they were beaten by Argentina. Although this was a fairly impressive achievement, in comparison to Japan' s many greater successes in the Olympics and the well-established position of baseball, football remained in the shadows.

The following year, the Japan Soccer League (JSL) was established. It was made up of 8 teams from 5 parts of Japan: three from Tokyo, two from the Nagoya area, and one each from Osaka, Hiroshima and Kitakyushu. This geographical spread compared favourably with the original situation in baseball nearly thirty years previously, when all seven teams were from just Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. However, in 1965 Hiroshima had a baseball team (Hiroshima Carp - formed in 1950), and so did Fukuoka (Nishitetsu Lions - 1951). This meant that all the new football clubs were in areas where competing baseball teams already existed: a fact that would make it difficult to attract spectators, despite the huge population of these industrial cities.

Photograph of Japanese football supporters.All these football teams were amateur, and the players were generally members of the companies that owned the teams, such as Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toyota. The league was dominated early on by the Hiroshima team, Toyo Kogyo. However, the Emperor's Cup, based on England's FA Cup and which had been going since before the Pacific War, continued to be dominated by university teams, in much the same way that the FA Cup was dominated by university and school teams in its early years.

1968 promised to be the spark to light football's fire in Japan. It was the Mexico Olympics and, again, Japan sent a soccer team. This time however the team managed to win a medal, albeit a bronze. However, back home, baseball continued to rule, as it had become part and parcel of everyday Japanese life. The 1970s saw the rise of Yanmar Diesel and their star player Kamamoto Kunishige. During his 16 year career beteeen 1969 and 1985 he racked up a record 202 goals and 79 assists. But, despite the existence of such a player, average crowds fell from 7,491 in 1968 to 1,773 in 1977.

Perhaps the most significant development in Japanese football in the 1970s however, was the formation of Yomiuri Soccer Club in 1972. The club was backed by the powerful Yomiuri group, the company behind Japan's (and the world's) best selling newspaper, a TV channel, and the backer of Japan's most popular baseball club, the Yomiuri Giants. The club rose from the JSL Second Division to the First Division in 1983. The team soon began to dominate Japanese football in the same way that the Giants were dominating baseball.

By the end of the 1980s, another team, Nissan, began to challenge Yomiuri's supremacy. Matches between the two pulled in crowds of up to 60,000, making for something of a derby atmosphere. By this time the Emperor's Cup and the Toyota Cup (played in Tokyo every year between the top team from Europe and the top team from South America) were attracting crowds of over 50,000. There appeared to be a growing number of people interested in the sport, and something of a cult following began to develop. However, average crowds for league games remained disappointingly low. Only Matsushita Denki had an average attendance of over 10,000, which was largely because the employees of Matsushita (better known as Panasonic, National and Technics abroad) were entitled to free entry to matches!

Japan still appeared to be a long way from having a professional league. But this came a step closer in 1986 when Yasuhiko Okudera was transferred from the German club FC Cologne to Furukawa Denko. The JFA decided to recognize him as a fully professional player, as he had been in Germany. In that year there were just two professional players, but this number rose astonishingly quickly to no less than 57 by the following year. Within the course of just a few more years the vast majority of the JSL First Division players were professionals.

In 1989, Nissan won all three major competitions (First Division title, League Cup and the Emperor's Cup), and then went on to become runners-up in the Asian Club Championship. Japanese football was beginning to make an impression in Asia with Furukawa Denko and Yomiuri winning this event in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

Finally the period of professional football had arrived. Yomiuri began signing up better players, such as Miura Kazuyoshi (normally known as "Kazu") who returned from a high profile and high prestige stint in Brazilian football with Pele's old club, Santos. The right conditions now seemed to exist to create a professional league; there were a growing number of professional players and there appeared to be a widespread interest in the game that just needed to be translated into more people attending matches. This interest was, however, reflected in the huge crowds that some matches brought in and by the 4,000 high school teams and 7,000 other junior teams that took part in competitions every year.

However, Japan needed a fresh start with a new league and a new image. According to Saburo Kawabuchi (the first J-League chairman), when he became JSL General Affairs Manager in 1988, "I thought the original goodness of football had been lost, it was only unfair play, there was no excitement."

Photograph of Japanese football supportersThe J-League officially began on 15 May 1993 with ten teams. Many of the these teams had their origins in previous JSL teams; for example, Yomiuri Soccer Club became Yomiuri Nihon Soccer Club. Some of the other name changes were less obvious, such as Toyota Football Club becoming Nagoya Grampus Eight. Shimizu S-Pulse is one of the few that has been totally formed from scratch.

Various conditions were set for attaining J.League status. First, teams had to have a home ground. Despite this, in the early years (and even now) teams often played in other cities in a bid to raise their (and the League's) profile. Second, the stadium had to have a capacity of at least 15,000. Again, this has usually been met; but Yomiuri used to use the National Stadium in Tokyo for many of its matches as its own stadium was too small. On top of this, many teams are now finding it hard to fill their stadiums. Third, teams had to have the support of the local government and other financial backers. This was aimed at getting away from the "corporate team" culture that had existed before. Although generally successful, it did not stop Yokohama Flugels from going bust. (They officially merged with local rivals Yokohama Marinos to become Yokohama F Marinos, although many of the Flugels fans refused to support this team and backed another independent Yokohama team, FC Yokohama, instead).

Since the J-League started, football has been a different ball game to what many are used to in Europe. There used to be no draws. Matches went to "sudden-death" (golden-goal) extra time and penalties. This experiment continued for some years, until penalties were recently dropped and draws were allowed. Sponsorship has been even bigger business in Japanese football than it is in Europe, although the prolonged recession and waning popularity has impacted on the game's appeal to sponsors.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference, which was demonstrated during Japan's exploits in the 1998 World Cup, is the enthusiasm of the fans. Huge flags, organised chanting and singing, and the large number of women attending have become features of the professional game in Japan. Indeed much of the marketing in the early days of the J-League was specifically aimed at getting women interested in the sport, helped (apparently) by the numbers of good-looking players clad in shorts rather than unsexy baseball uniforms.

Another feature of the J-League, which was in part aimed at helping raise the standard of Japanese football, and in part (though the two are undoubtedly linked) to help win the bid for 2002 World Cup, was the presence of high-profile foreign players. Although in the early years this tended to be those at or near the end of their career, such as Zico and Gary Lineker, there have been some younger players still at the peak of the career, the best example being Dunga playing for Jubilo Iwata while still captain of Brazil.

Among the aging stars who have dropped by the J-League from Europe for a spell to bolster their pension funds are Hristo Stoichkov, Pierre Littbarski, Julio Salinas, Andoni Goicoechea and Salvatore Schillaci. Younger players who moved the other way include Leonardo and Patrick Mboma to Italy. Japan is also starting to export its own talent with clubs attracted by the phenomenal marketing success of Nakata's move to Perugia in Serie A. Strikers Shoji Jo and Akihiro Nishizawa have had spells in Spain and Hiroshi Nanami followed in Nakata's footsteps to Italy.

Japan was obviously disappointed not to be given the sole responsibility of hosting the 2002 World Cup. However, there is no doubt that they will put on a good show for the matches they do host. Popularity in the sport may have waned, but is picking up as the real business of hosting starts and the media build-up to the World Cup begins.

As for the quality, Japan will almost certainly not win the World Cup, but their aim will be to win at least one match (which South Korea too is still to achieve despite its many visits to the Finals), and to entertain. For the rest of the world, it should be a great spectacle, and hopefully some of the Japanese football culture, such as the non-riotous but enthusiastic support, and the large participation of women, will be passed on to the visiting fans. Japan may still have much to learn about football, but are more than a few things they can teach the rest of the football world.

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Ultra Nippon :How Japan Reinvented Football
Jonathan Birchall (Paperback)

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