18 July ~ Imagine the scenario. England didn’t lose 4-1 to Germany at the World Cup – they were agonisingly defeated on penalties. In front of the assembled press Steven Gerrard says: "We're heartbroken but we want to thank the fans here and at home. Please keep supporting us, please keep coming to England's games and please keep supporting the English league." If you're Japanese you don't need to imagine this, because this is exactly what Makoto Hasebe, captain of the Japan team (and who plays his club football at Wolfsburg), did after their defeat to Paraguay. Now, after an eight-week mid-season break, the J-League returns and with it one of the unalloyed success stories of world football.
The J-League was formed in 1993 in an attempt to strengthen the national side and now it's on the cusp of becoming one of the world's top leagues. Three per cent of all players at the World Cup play in the J-League, a figure which bears favourable comparison with the Argentinean, Brazilian, Portuguese, Russian and Turkish leagues. It's also popular. The league's biggest club, Urawa Red Diamonds, can draw crowds of 60,000 and last year the J-League averaged a healthy 19,000 (attendances in Serie A by comparison, averaged out at just under 25,000). This year attendances are set to surpass 11 million.
"Before the J-League the standard of football in Japan was very poor," says Professor Yasuo Kawabata, a football expert at Japan Women's University. "Early J-League stars, both domestic and foreign ones, such as Zico, Pierre Littbarski and Gary Lineker, inspired many boys to turn their back on baseball and take up football."
The impressive Keisuke Honda, along with players such as Yoshizumi Ogawa and Masato Morishige, are the first of the "J-League generation" to mature. Crucially these young stars are emerging hand-in-hand with a greater depth of coaching talent. In 2007 Akira Nishino, manager of Gamba Osaka, became the first coach to complete the clean sweep of J-League, J-Cup, Emperor's Cup and Asian Champions League. Coaches of the ability of Nishino have further helped develop national team players like Yasuhito Endo. It is the kind of virtuous circle built in to the national "One hundred year vision" (tag line: "A Future Worth Building, Though It Takes 100 Years") for the future of Japanese football.
As the season resumes Nishino's Gamba Osaka are back in 11th but they only trail leaders Shimizu S-Pulse by 11 points, a fact that underlines the competitiveness of the J-League. Only five points split the top five and only ten points split the top ten. An exciting finale is apparently built in to the J-League season – in 2005 the top five went in to the final day of the season separated by just one point. This year Nagoya Grampus (who feature several Japanese national team players as well as Australian forward Joshua Kennedy), Kawasaki Frontale and S-Pulse look best placed to challenge defending champions Kashima Antlers.
The league's finances are also interesting. The J-League was formed as Japan's economic bubble burst so after the early years of Arsène Wenger and Linker, the clubs had scale back on recruiting foreign talent. Of course, outstanding Japanese talent (such as Honda, Daisuke Matsui and Makoto Hasebe) still tends to make its way westwards. The J-League attracts its share of foreign players but overall its competitive attention is focused on the South Korean K-League and the Asian Champions League.
"It has changed a little recently, says Professor Kawabata, "but Korean football has generally been superior to the Japanese game. What is interesting is the way that the improvement of Japan and the J-League has also had a positive impact on the quality of the South Korean team and the K-League." Cut off from the footballing boom of the past decade, and forced to prove their financial viability by a strict ruling association, the growth of the J-League has contributed to the formation of an east Asian bloc that is well placed to weather the footballing bust. When the J-League kicks off again with the Shizuko derby (between S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata) 50,000 people will be too caught up in the match to care about that. That such a massive game is now taken for granted shows just how far the J-League has come. Scott Anthony