Asia minors

Japan will play in a World Cup for the first time in their history. Sam Wallace claims the achievement will have a knock-on effect through the country

The Adidas advert where Beckham, Gazza and Del Piero play against clones of themselves has a different twist in Japan. At the end the winning goal is scored by Japan’s international midfielder Hiroshi Nanami. In the final frame Nanami tries to exchange shirts with his double who instead demands Nanami’s boots. The irony is that probably the only player who recognised Nanami in that team of superstars was the player himself. But all this might change after France 98. Here in Asia the economic miracle has at last been succeeded by its sporting cousin: Japan have qualified for their first World Cup.

Their 3-2 defeat of Iran means that they are Asia’s third qualifiers after South Korea and Saudi Arabia. The play-off against Iran was a heart-stopping affair finally settled by Masayuki Okano’s extra time golden goal. Led by their 20 year-old playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata, the provider for all three goals, Japan’s victory was little more than they deserved. A run of three victories has precipitated an immense turn around in the fortunes of the national side. Before their 2-0 victory in South Korea and a 5-1 drubbing of Kazakhstan they were a disgrace: overpaid, overrated and unable to see off some very weak opposition.

The guarantee of blanket World Cup coverage that qualification brings is a relief to all British ex-pats in Japan who have to make do on a standard of domestic football comparable to that served up in the nether regions of the Nationwide League. The J-League is as exciting as those in-depth analyses of Asian economies that come free with Sunday supplements.

Football remains second in the population’s affections to baseball and that sport’s professional league which began in the 1950s. Baseball has cemented its world status by virtue of that oldest of Japanese traditions: exports. There are a handful of Japanese players in America’s Major League teams who have earned a loyal following back home. Yet Japanese footballers are still untested abroad, especially in the closely followed European leagues. One of the few sorties overseas was made by Japan’s sometime captain and star centre-forward Kazuyoshi ‘Kazu’ Miura. As a teenager he played in Brazil before returning to Japan for the inception of the J-League. A transfer to Italy followed and a year spent injured or on the bench in Genoa was ended by a clutch of first-team appearances while the team settled into mid-table safety. Kazu left after a season amidst rumours his selection had been encouraged by Genoa shareholders, Toyota.

The J-League itself made more money in merchandising in its first year, 1993, than baseball had made in its entire history. However, while new teams were added, early enthusiasm gradually evaporated. Explanations for the J-League’s falling attendances are rarely more complicated than those offered for the difficulties football has endured in North America trying to establish itself alongside the indigenous sports. The league programme has expanded and teams often kick off mid-week games before most Japanese people have even finished work. The gradual metamorphosis Newton Heath and Thames Ironworks underwent from workers’ teams into professional sides in the early part of the century was effected almost instantly by the likes of Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hitachi and Panasonic in the 1990s.

Many teams now play in front of crowds well below the capacity of their grounds but are supported by the corporations who often make up part of their name or feature on the club crest. The hardcore support comes from a generation still in their twenties. There is a widely held belief that a passion for football will not distil itself in the national temperament until the current younger generation are taking their families to games.

My side are Gamba Osaka, whose modest ground is squeezed next to an amusement park and an expressway. Gamba’s sponsors are Panasonic, handy for the scoreboard and floodlights but not for much else. However, building an entire team is no longer a problem. Everyone who watches the side knows that there is really only one player who matters. Patrick Mbomba, centre-forward for Cameroon. When he first joined Gamba he would chase everything his erratic midfield knocked forward. It didn’t take Mbomba long to realise that this was quite unnecessary. Now he spends most of his time staring in disbelief at his team-mates/ the referee/ the Gamba bench. Strangely enough the Japanese continue to condone this lacklustre attitude to conduct in the workplace. Mbomba is hugely popular, especially after Gamba finished a highest-ever second this season and he agreed to stay for another year.

Japan will take one of the youngest squads to the World Cup. A leaky defence may prevent progress past the first round but if they are to make any impression in France a lot will rely on the midfield pairing Nanami and Nakata. The latter, a product of Japan’s impressive youth team, may yet have a future in Europe’s domestic leagues. Sporting dyed hair and famously reluctant to give interviews, he was outstanding against Iran. Manager Takeshi Okada, who replaced Shu Kamo halfway through the campaign is likely to opt for Kazu and Wagner Lopes as his front two. Lopes is a recently nationalised Brazilian who delivers his post match interviews in flawless Japanese, even remembering the ubiquitous ‘so desu ne’ – the Japanese footballer’s equivalent of ‘obviously’ – at the start of every sentence.

For now the country is simply relieved to have earned a World Cup place on merit before receiving one automatically in 2002 by dint of its immense wealth and formidable powers of organisation. Japan could one day establish itself as a reasonable footballing force, but they still have some way to go to match South Korea who, under coach Bum Kun Cha, have reached their fourth consecutive World Cup finals. In the meantime the France 98 team would do well to remember those vital attributes of all good Japanese tourists: boundless enthusiasm and an oblivion to the opinion of those around you. They may well need them.

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month