TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s J-League was a trailblazer for Asian football when it debuted in 1993 and now, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is still pointing the way forwards for the region.
Gone are the days when J-League clubs spent lavishly to recruit the likes of Gary Lineker, Zico and Pierre Littbarski, who lit up the early years of Japan’s first professional league.
With limited attendances and TV money, following the burst of Japan’s economic bubble in the early 1990s, the league has stayed afloat without big names on its team sheets.
What’s more, it has provided a steady flow of players for Japan’s national team, the current Asian champions, and now for top European clubs, with Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United and Yuto Nagatomo at Inter Milan.
In a country which previously confined itself to an obsession with baseball, it is quite an achievement, and could provide a template for others like the Chinese Super League, which has spent heavily in recent years.
“There would have been no Kagawa of Manchester United or Nagatomo of Inter Milan if the J-League was not born 20 years ago,” said Saburo Kawabuchi, who served as the league’s inaugural chairman until 2002.
“You can’t find any other league in the world which has developed so much in just 20 years,” said the former Japan Football Association chief, in interviews with Japanese media.
He added: “The biggest dream of children is to become J-League players first of all and aspire to come up big in top European clubs.”
Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds and Gamba Osaka both won the AFC Champions League, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, although J-League teams have found the pan-Asian competition tougher in recent years.
However, the J-League is widely admired around the region, and since its advent Japan has qualified for four successive World Cups, won three Asian Cups and consistently topped the regional rankings.
When former Japan and Jubilo Iwata midfielder Hiroshi Nanami played at the 1998 World Cup, his squad were entirely made up of J-League players.
But now Europe-based players, who compete and mingle with the world’s best, usually account for more than half of the Blue Samurai.
“J-League players can feed their national-team experiences back into their clubs,” Nanami said, noting both Kagawa and Nagatomo were “made in the J-League before flying into the world”. He added: “We must carry on this history.”
Foreign stars dominated the league’s inaugural match on May 15, 1993, which was played in front of 60,000 spectators at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
Dutch striker Hennie Meijer scored the league’s first ever goal, for Verdy Kawasaki, before Brazil’s Everton and Argentine Ramon Diaz were on target as Yokohama Marinos won 2-1.
And for several years, the J-League continued showcasing imported talent like Dunga, Jorginho, Patrick M’Boma and Dragan Stojkovic, paying handsome wages reportedly as high as 300 million yen ($3 million) a year.
But Kawabuchi led a drive for more sensible management, especially after Yokohama Flugels were absorbed in 1998 by cross-town rivals Yokohama Marinos after losing their sponsors.
Capped wages and a drive to balance the books, while reaching out to local communities to keep support buoyant, has helped keep clubs alive.
Meanwhile the J-League has grown from 10 to 40 teams, with a second division created in 1999, and it is set to hit 50 when a third tier is added next year.
Average attendance has bounced back after lurking below 12,000 in the late 1990s. Boosted by a surge in interest after Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, it peaked at 19,202 in 2008 and stood at 17,566 last year, 11th among the world’s first divisions, according to British magazine World Soccer.
Unusually for Asia, where the English Premier League often overshadows domestic football, the J-League gives Japanese fans a home-grown alternative and, for players, a realistic route to the top.
Pay starts at 150,000 yen a month for some in the second division — rising to 13 million for Nagoya Grampus’s Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka — prompting many to move abroad.
Some 25 Japanese are currently playing in Europe’s first divisions, including Kagawa, Nagatomo, Southampton’s Maya Yoshida, Nuremberg’s Hiroshi Kiyotake and CSKA Moscow playmaker Keisuke Honda. Nearly half of them are in the Bundesliga.
“Players who are being developed in Japan are in demand,” said Zico, who played three World Cups with Brazil and ended his career at Kashima Antlers, before coaching Japan’s national team.
“But with more and more players heading to Europe, that creates a vacuum in Japan which the clubs must make sure to fill so there is no hollowing out of talent,” he warned.