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

Watanabe/Getty Images”)

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

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

1999 season).

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.