With the likes of Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow, Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund and Yuto Nagatomo at Inter Milan to name but three, the current pedigree of Japanese footballers has never been higher. The late 90’s and early 00’s saw a smattering of Nihon players make their mark at the European top level; Hidetoshi Nakata’s midfield forays lit up Serie A, most notably for Perugia and Parma, while Celtic fans will no doubt still hold gooey-eyed sentiment for deadball maestro Shunsuke Nakamura.
But in truth, these felt more like ‘one offs’ – diamonds in the rough rather than part of a consistent conveyor belt of talent – the likes of which we so readily take for granted in Europe, South America and now Africa. So what exactly has changed in the Japanese setup? New tactics, superior physical fitness, or something more fundamental? To take an inquisitive peek up the kimono, we spoke to Osaka-based football writer, author and all round Japanese football expert Ben Mabley, who took some time out from covering the FIFA Club World Cup to shed some light one of football’s most prominent rising powers.
Football is of course not an especially new arrival in Japan. Older England fans will know of Grampus Eight and the J-League from the two seasons former-hero-turned-TV-pundit Gary Lineker spent there at the twilight of his career. A then unproven Arsene Wenger also had a brief stint as manager of the club in the mid 90’s, before receiving that fateful tap on the shoulder from David Dein and the Arsenal board. But according to Mabley, as a calculated attempt to introduce football into Japanese society, its come a long way from punting has-beens, wannabes and never-has-beens:
“While there was a lot of razzmatazz and foreign imports at the beginning, the organisers were quick to realise the long-term importance of establishing roots into the community. Learning from the mistakes of the old NASL in North America, things like a designated hometown in which to conduct social contribution activities – including coaching sessions at local schools – and a locally-focused youth development system were made part of the statutes for all J. League members.”
A strong home league with serious youth support would seem the most obvious prerequisites for producing top-level players, but with the J-League now in its 20th year, why are we only now witnessing the benefits of its relative success?
“Crucially, the latest generation is the first to have actually grown up with the J. League. Football was, in terms of wider society, a virtual non-entity before they were born, but then the J. League happened and gave them all sorts of opportunities (for inspiration, as much as anything) that weren’t there before.”
Mabley is a keen advocate of this seeding process, calling the J-League the best league outside of Europe and Latin America, even going so far as to site it as superior to the MLS, due in no small part to a focus on individual skill and the technicalities of the game:
“Japanese football has always emphasised technique, dating back to well before the professional era. This is partly a cultural thing, and partly a recognition of the fact that this is an area where Japanese players might naturally excel, whereas for example, they might be physically at a disadvantage.”
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