First, let us begin where every story must; the beginning. The year is 1988, the month is March and Japanese football is an afterthought for the vast majority of the population; national interest in the sport is virtually non existent. Japan’s national football team has yet to qualify for an Asian Cup let alone make an appearance at the World Cup. Many Japanese people are more interested in baseball and the football culture is all but absent. Twenty years earlier, the Japanese Olympic football team had won bronze at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. This achievement threatened to be the catalyst for football fever in the nation, but the increase in popularity was fleeting and soon turned into apathy; for twenty years the game was not progressing as had been envisioned by those that set up the Japanese Soccer League in 1965. Average attendances at JSL games in the late 70s fell to an alarmingly low 1773 per game during one season. Action had to be taken by those that loved the beautiful game; and in an office inhabited by visionary JSL officials in March 1988 was where the story really began. This was what was dubbed “The Revitalisation Committee” by the JSL, and they held their second meeting in October of that year. In November 1991, the Japan Professional Football League replaced the now defunct JSL, thus the J league was born. This defining moment was to perpetually change the shape of Japanese football. The professional league kicked off in 1993 (the same year that Japan put a bid forward to host the 2002 World Cup) and had big money investment, it attracted stellar names such as Zico and Gary Lineker, and this helped fuel interest and popularity in the newly revamped league and the sport as a whole.
Development & Essence Of The Game
There was change at the grass roots level, too. Youth development was heavily on the agenda as the Japanese Football Association realised the importance of this facet. The JFA ploughed resources into youth academies, coaching and scouting. A network was set up across Japan and local schools became involved in promoting the game and coaching kids. Business also played a hand in this revolution, Nestle Japan also setting up a very successful national football training program. The effort was a concerted one and well organised, everyone was pulling in the same direction and it began to reap rewards as we will cover later.
Importantly, too, there was a football based anime by the name of Captain Tsubasa that helped fuel a love for the game among children. For those who have seen the show which began it’s run in the early 80’s, they will know what I am referring to. For those that don’t, you have missed out on an inspiring anime series, which has garnered worldwide attention and been shown from South America to Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. It has inspired stars such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Del Piero, Fernando Torres, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi, amongst many others. The influence of this show on the uptake of the sport in young individuals in Japan cannot be overestimated. It both affected and reflected the growing popularity of the sport in Japan.
So the plan was in place, the foundations of this grand footballing masterplan had been laid by the early 90’s and there was no going back at this point. With this, we will conclude part 1 of this piece. In part 2 I will be looking at how these changes translated into success both on the continent and internationally for the island nation.