Embed from Getty Images

While the whole world is looking to them due to the signings of Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres, Japan are pushing their football movement with a well-structured pyramid, a huge number pro-clubs and a long-dated vision

After 2014 World Cup, many were worried not only about African football (which promised a lot since the 90s), but also about Asian football. While both Mexico and the United States of America reached Round of 16, all Asian teams fans down. While Australia and South Korea had already some problems during qualifying, Iran tried their best in their WC-return after eight years. And Japan? They were the huge delusion of that World Cup, collecting just one point in three games after a lot of hype collected in the previous years.

In Russia this year, everything changed for Asian football. Four out of the five AFC-teams won at least one game; all of them collected at least one point. Australia seriously challenged eventual champions France, Iran showed that they deserved to reach the second round, Saudi Arabia were impressive, earned a win and perhaps, if they had a little more quality in their ranks, could have challenged for qualification and South Korea shocked Germany on their way out of the World Cup.

And Japan? At their sixth World Cup in a row, they surprised everyone: coming into the tournament without any expectation, the Samurai Blue shocked Colombia and then progressed through the group stage, taking a 2-0 lead against Belgium before their unprecedented collapse. They lost in the end, but in that encounter, there were traces of what Japanese football needs to adjust and what may come in the next years.

Despite their recent achievements, Japanese football’s roots aren’t so long-dated. As of today, sakkā – called like this due to American influence on the region after World War II, replacing the old Sino-Chinese term shūkyū – is still trying to recover some ground on sumo and especially baseball, the most famous sports in Japan, but football has made significant progress in the country. Despite finding a recent consecration, football was brought to Japan around 1870 by Archibald Lucius Douglas, a Canadian-born officer who worked as a foreign Royal Navy-man in the land of the Rising Sun.

Moreover, the Japan Football Association was officially born in 1921, but football had to wait. Not even the great result at 1968 Olympic Games’ football tournament – in Mexico City, where Japan finished in third place – spurred a real push for Japanese football, although a new championship was born in 1965. Japan Soccer League was based on the same concept of baseball, with squads owned by companies, a trait that largely remained throughout all these decades.

In those days, there weren’t too many foreign players, but whoever were, mostly graced from Brazil which is normal as the relationship between Japan and Brazil is deep and well-rooted, with many Japanese coming to Brazil to work through the legendary Masato Karu, the ship which brought 790 Japanese people to Santos in search of new jobs and opportunities as the economy in the Far East was underwhelming. To date, Brazil hosts the biggest Japanese community in a foreign country and many Brazilian people came to Japan to work and then came back to live a prosper life in their country.

Some results showed up, but in the mid-80s Japan still hadn’t featured in a World Cup nor in an Asian Cup tournament. This happened because the JSL-players were amateurs, not professionals, working for their companies during the day and then playing football as a hobby. Something started to change culturally when Captain Tsubasa, the manga-series, boosted football into the country’s vision and the Japanese national team began to show up on the continental stage.

In November 1992, after hosting the competition, the Samurai Blue won the Asian Cup in only their second participation – this, a stark contrast from their first, where they were knocked out in the group stages. A year later, they had to suffer the pain of missing out on the 1994 World Cup after a defeat to Iraq, but the country and its footballers were still optimistic. They believed they were on the right path to becoming a powerhouse in Asia.

The best was yet to come.

The JFA realized that the domestic league wasn’t enough to push football. They needed something else, so they came up with the idea of a new league, this time with a professional status called the J. League. The new tournament featured 10 teams and it was launched with a huge and fashionable presentation on 15 May 1993. The game between Verdy Kawasaki and Yokohama F. Marinos saw almost 60,000 people present and a packed National Stadium. There were excitement and promise for the future, but not everything worked out immediately.

After a good run in the first seasons, something plunged: the Lost Decade – a massive stagnation striking Japan after the economic collapse between 1991 and 1992 – impacted the Japanese economy immensely and this also affected the football. Less spectators and less stars from Europe and South America after the likes of Gary Lineker, Pierre Littbarski, Zico, Salvatore Schillaci, Dragan Stojković and Leonardo took part in the competition, but most damningly, a club shunned down all operations. In a moving 1999 Emperor’s Cup final, Yokohama Flügels won their second trophy in their history, but it was a bitter end: it was their last game in Japanese football before merging with the Yokohama Marinos and adding the “F.”, to their name that they are now known as.

To avoid failure, a J. League committee came up with two ideas. The first, a herculean plan called the “J. League 100-Year Vision”, which had the goal of having 100 pro-clubs by 2092. A grassroot movement could push into creating a lot more clubs than before, financed by their own cities or prefectures rather than backed up by major sponsors. The second idea was to expand the football pyramid by creating a second division, but with a professional status: J2 League. It was launched by 1999 with 10 clubs and from then J. League did another step by scrapping the two-stage season and playing one championship.

The plan worked: while attendances first raised and then declined a little, Japan top tier has seen an average attendance of 18,883, while J2 League registered a good average of 6,970, which is a decent figure relative to second-tier football in European nations. The success of these two divisions led to the creation of a third-tier league, the J3 League, which commenced in 2013, also with professional status. As of now, 54 clubs in Japan have a professional status, and the country is well on their way to achieve one of the aims of their century-long plan.

Also, to achieve professional status a football club must strictly respect the rules. The club must be organized as a public corporation or NPO solely devoted to football, keeping that status for no less than one year. A club must be, for its majority, Japanese owned, respect several administrative and financial targets (even conduct an annual tax audit), have the go from local administration to pursue a J. League rise and even feature working soccer school/youth system that exists for no less than one year.

The complexity of the rules may seem insane for a developing football system, but it’s actually pretty solid: it prevents many problems, problems that could cause clubs to file for bankruptcy or dissolve completely, problems which have severely affected major football clubs and historical giants in Italy most recently.

As for the players, the 2000s didn’t bring any major names to Japan, but many pioneers established themselves in J. League and found happiness and professional rewards in the land of the Rising Sun. Just look at the careers of some Brazilian players – like Marquinhos, Juninho or Lucas – who managed to create a status for themselves in Japan. Or to Mihael Mikić and Joshua Kennedy, a Croatian wing-back and an Australian forward both adored by their fans in Hiroshima and Nagoya. And this tendency to host foreign players isn’t gone, since Brazil has the highest number of foreigners in J1 League, five clubs feature a South-Korean goalkeeper and Thailand’s best football sons – Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda, alongside other three Thailand national team players – are trying to grow in Japan.

This growth impacted by force also on Japan national team’s results. After the creation of J. League, Japan qualified for their first World Cup in 1998. They co-hosted the 2002 edition, passing through the group stage for their first time. They did it another two times – in 2010 and in 2018 – and in both cases they’ve been close to reaching quarter-finals.

It doesn’t matter if they were knocked out by the woodwork on Komano’s penalty or by a goal of Nacer Chadli: the results are there. From 1992, Japan won the Asian Cup another three times – 2000, 2004 and 2011 – and they lost just two games in the last seven editions. So, they basically lost more games in their debut in 1988 (three) than in the other editions they’ve featured on.

This growth let many famous Japanese players go to Europe: from Kazuyoshi Miura to Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura to Shinji Ono, passing through Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, Naohiro Takahara, Shinji Okazaki and many others. And others will come; even the ones who stayed at home – like Yasuhito Endo or Seigo Narazaki – have garnered a fine reputation in Asia.

How the future could shape out? The truth is while many non-fans are currently busy in following the adventure of Torres and Iniesta respectively at Sagan Tosu and Vissel Kobe, Japanese football will grow with other kinds of additions. That is due to a crucial agreement with Perform Group in the Summer of 2016 – a ¥210 billion (€183 million per year), 10 year-deal – that injected all J. League clubs with a huge sum of money. Just like the ‘90s, the arrivals of high-profile players in Japan may just start all over again. Lukas Podolski and Jô have also joined, and that star cast will only continue to grow.

It has also become evident how the really efficient deals for Japanese clubs are less-marketed players. We’ve talked about Thai revelations, but we could mention also Jay Bothroyd, Hugo Vieira, Krzysztof Kamiński, Matej Jonjić or Gabriel Xavier. All players came in Japan with few or no references, who established themselves as valuable assets for their teams.

If you remember, Diego Forlán and Cacau both signed for Cerezo Osaka in 2014: the club had huge expectations, but Cerezo instead got relegated and the supporters got angry at their superstars. Marquee players don’t exactly guarantee success, no matter how successful their careers may have been.

This will inevitably affect the Japanese national team: after coming up short against Belgium, the region is curious to see how the future will shape up. The Asian Cup is just around the corner and Japan needs to renovate their squad, and they will be strong favourites to go all the way, with expectations sky-high. Hajime Moriyasu – the man behind three J. League titles with Sanfrecce Hiroshima – will be the new head coach, managing the senior and youth squads simultaneously. Also, the 2020 Olympic Games – which will take place in Tokyo – will be another huge opportunity to understand where Japanese football stands.

There are a lot of factors to consider, and with their tight schedules, brand of football and ideas, Japan may surprise us all in the coming years. Asia’s powerhouse isn’t perfect, but it might get to that point soon enough.