USA, Japan: Soccer bedfellows – Part 1
How many women – and let’s be honest it usually is women –
say they know two people who are perfect for each other if only
they could somehow be in the same place at the same time? If FIFA
were to host a dinner party, then the United States and Japan have
enough in common to get a good conversation started and enough
differences to make keep it interesting. They really should spend
time getting to know each other better.
For the world’s international-minded fans, MLS and the J.
League have established themselves as two of the best, if not the
best, outside Europe. Top flight games in Japan attracted an
average close to 20,000 in 2010 while in the USA, during the 2011
regular season, saw figures reach 18,000. With world-class stadia,
regular appearances at the World Cup (and its latter stages) and
players active in Europe, the future looks bright for both.
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notoriously large Urawa Red Diamonds crowd cheers their team during
November 19th’s match against Vegalta Sendai. (Getty Images: Hiroki
Afshin Ghotbi is a well-known figure in the California soccer
scene and was a member of the USA’s coaching staff at the
1998 World Cup. He is now the head coach at J. League club Shimizu
“Both leagues are closing on two decades of history and
they are now challenging established sports such as
baseball,” Ghotbi told FOXSoccer.com.
Japan doesn’t operate in the highly competitive
marketplace that the MLS finds itself, with soccer receiving
massive media coverage, especially when it comes to the national
team. Only baseball is a serious rival in Japan, though soccer has
already caught (or almost caught) a game which started its first
professional league way back in 1936. Despite baseball’s 56-year
head start, you are just as likely to see kids swinging a foot as a
bat in Tokyo these days.
As it showed in the aftermath of March’s earthquake and tsunami,
soccer is more in tune with the country than its more established
and slightly staid rival. The J. League quickly suspended the
season for six weeks, leaving players free for some serious
fund-raising and, at times, debris-clearing between rounds one and
two. The quick decision to put the league on the backburner was
widely appreciated by the media and the nation at large in contrast
to baseball, which initially wanted to start as normal at the end
of March before falling in with football’s footsteps.
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Short history of the J. League
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1992 – J. League founded with 10 original
1993 – J. League begins inaugural season,
eventually won by Verdy Kawasaki, who won the first two J. League
titles (Verdy Kawasaki currently exist as Tokyo Verdy).
1997 – J. League attendance averages 10,131 per
game, down from the 1994 high of 19,568 as the league adds eight
teams over a four-year period from 1994 to 1998.
1999 – J. League moves to a two-division,
relegation system, incorporating nine semi-pro clubs to from J2.
League also moves away from tiebreaking mechanisms (penalty
shootouts for regular season games were eliminated before the
2004 – League moves away from split-season
2005 – League expands to 18 clubs.
2008 – Gamba Osaka wins Asian Champions League,
the second consecutive season a J. League team wins the
confederation club title.
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League’s immediate impact
If soccer is cooler and more in tune with the nation than
baseball, there wasn’t much hip about the game in the Land of
the Rising Sun before 1993, when the J. League was launched. Until
then, soccer consisted of companies such as Hitachi and Mitsubishi
fielding teams watched by handfuls of half-interested employees.
With rivals South Korea 10 years into its pro-league (the oldest in
Asia) and starting to appear regularly at World Cups, Japan wanted
to do something similar.
It opened in a blaze of publicity. The media went mad for all
things ‘J.’ So did the fans. 300,000 people applied for
tickets for the opening game between Yokohama Marinos and Verdy
Kawasaki. Each team was allowed three foreign stars, with Japan
mindful of the NASL experience : lots of big-names concentrated in
a small number of teams.
Some of the biggest names in the early 90s were tempted to East
Asia. Zico was credited with helping the locals to take pride in
their performances – to always be professional and never give up –
while Dunga has the reputation of schooling Japanese players in the
darker, more pragmatic arts of football. Gary Lineker hardly played
while Dragan Stojkovic is still there. After thrilling fans with
his wonderful skills, the Serbian suited-up to lead Nagoya Grampus
to the 2010 J. League title.
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much, too soon
Around the same time a bid was launched for the World Cup. By
the time the news came through that it would be shared with Korea,
however, the boom was well and truly over.
Tom Byer is an American who has worked in Japanese football for
two decades: first as a player and then as a coach who has worked
with over 500,000 children, including a 10-year-old Shinji Kagawa.
He remembers the dip very well.
“When the J. League first started there were 10
teams,” said the son of a New York City cop now in demand all
over Asia and beyond for his experience and knowhow when it comes
to coaching kids. Eight more were added in the four years from
1994. “The quality of the players and media interest dropped.
In 1995, there were 6.1 million fans but the year after, the number
had fallen to 3.2 million. Then came 1998. The national team
qualified for World Cup and that helped attendances and
Also in 1999, the J2 was established with 10 teams, meaning
automatic relegation battles would add to the excitement. The 2002
World Cup was on the horizon and the JFA’s Hundred Year
Vision, one that aims to put the nation at the top table of the
world’s elite by any yardstick you would care to name by the
end of the 21st century, was announced. Once again, momentum was
moving in the right direction.
Teams like Urawa Reds emerged. In a new 60,000 state-of the-art
World Cup Stadium, the Reds were soon filling it on a regular
basis. The club quickly became a vital part of the local community
in the fairly non-descript suburb of Tokyo, its success leading to
renown across Asia, the club regularly receiving visitors hoping to
learn how it is done. Even with the team falling on relatively hard
time (it is currently fighting relegation), Urawa still attract
around 40,000 to each game.
It helped that the league was also becoming increasingly
entertaining. The turning point was 2005. It was the first season
without the split season play-off system, when the team that won
the first half of the season met the team that won the second in an
end of season match-up. The new format would be recognizable to any
European – finish first and take the trophy. Any nerves as to
whether one team would run away with the league and render the rest
almost meaningless soon disappeared as one of the most thrilling
title races in the history of football (not just in Japan) started
to take shape.
Five teams entered the last day of the season separated by a
single point. Cerezo Osaka led until the final minute when a
conceded goal meant a fifth, rather than first, placed finish. To
make matters worse, city rivals Gamba stepped in to take its first
title. One side of Osaka had a Saturday night to end all nights,
while the other – well, let’s just say that even relegation
the following season wasn’t as traumatic as December day.