World Cup 2022: As the J.League evolves, Japan’s best head to Europe

World Cup 2022: As the J.League evolves, Japan’s best head to Europe

Japan have played in their seventh consecutive World Cup since first qualifying in 1998
Japan have played in their seventh consecutive World Cup since first qualifying in 1998
Host Country: Qatar Appointment: November 20-December 18 Cover: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-to-day TV programsFull coverage details

A short walk from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, through an entrance more suited to a public bathroom and tucked down a flight of stairs in a warehouse store, is an Aladdin’s cave of vintage football shirts.

A figurine of Thomas Gravesen adorned the counter, until the generous saleswoman offered it to an intrigued tourist. The Dane’s bald, plastic head was in any way at odds with the J.League’s eclectic mix of colorful kits.

Trendy, curious and sequestered yet dynamic, welcoming and utterly captivating, these few square meters of store are the scene of Japanese football in a microcosm, where a Kashima Antlers or Yokohama Marinos jersey can rub shoulders with iconic European jerseys from Milan, Madrid or Munich.

Japanese soccer attracted stars like Gary Lineker and Zico when the J.League was established in 1993, modeled its marketing on American sports, and imported much of its fan culture – tifos, flags, chants, ultras (relatively friendly) and mascots, all embraced by crowds benefiting from a large female audience and sprinkled with local flair to make attending the games a unique experience.

Three decades into its existence and emerging from Covid-imposed restrictions on stadium crowds and chanting, the country’s top flight is thriving. Average attendance peaked at over 20,000 before the pandemic and it is halfway through a 12-year, $2.1bn (£17.63bn) national broadcast deal with DAZN.

But while the terraces may be flooded with lore from around the world, a flood of the country’s top talent is heading in the other direction.

When Japan hosted the World Cup with South Korea in 2002, only four members of the team, including Arsenal’s Junichi Inamoto and Parma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, were playing football abroad.

In Qatar, 19 of 26 will make it, and that number could have been higher had it not been for the surprise dismissal of Celtic striker Kyogo Furuhashi and a late injury to Huddersfield defender Yuta Nakayama.

“The J.League and its fans are very proud to have created so many players who can go to Europe,” said Dan Orlowitz of the Japan Times.

“But it’s not special anymore – it’s kind of expected. [Italian] Alberto Zaccheroni became head coach in 2010 and his message was ‘go west’.”

The route most often taken is Belgium or Germany, where eight players currently play, including captain Maya Yoshida and Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada. And it is against the German team of Hans-Dieter Flick that the Samurai Blue kick off their World Cup campaign.

Japan will also face Spain, home of 21-year-old midfielder Takefusa Kubo, who trained with Barcelona before joining Real Madrid and now plays for Real Sociedad.

Add to that players like Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kaoru Mitoma from Brighton and ex-Liverpool striker Takumi Minamino from Monaco and it’s a team full of talent.

“Young Japanese players have ability,” Vissel Kobe midfielder and World Cup winner Andres Iniesta told BBC Sport.

“In my opinion, they are dynamic, talented and physically strong.”

Create “a world-class football environment”

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‘Spirit of Zico’ lives on for Kashima Antlers fans

Historically, Japanese players who moved overseas tended to do so later in their careers. Some even go to college before committing to professional football, including Brighton’s Mitoma, who put his progress at Kawasaki Frontale on hold to study coaching, sport and nutrition.

“If you rewind 15-20, you had to be 25/26, a few good J.League seasons and improve the national team,” adds Orlowtiz.

“Now European clubs understand that Japanese players are really talented and they’re not just flash-in-the-pan, so they’re going after the younger guys.”

The J.League makes a conscious effort to produce young talent and has a “Football 2030 Vision” which aims to provide “a world-class football environment”. It includes the ‘DNA Project’, which aims to help clubs develop the best players and coaches.

Former president Mitsuru Murai also actively encouraged players to travel to Europe, hoping that one day they would come back and enrich the league with their experience.

“There are very good qualities,” said Richard Allen, senior football manager and technical adviser to Yokohama FC, who has just been promoted to the top flight.

“It’s a double-edged sword, you want your best players to go and play in Europe, but that has a ripple effect on the league.”

Allen, a former head of talent identification for the English Football Association and head of recruitment at Tottenham Hotspur, is keen to facilitate opportunities for young players to test themselves against the best opponents.

“They need variety,” he adds. “They have to play against Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Barcelona, ​​Real Madrid, Juventus – if players want to develop, they need those experiences and exposure.”

This variety does not currently exist in the J.League despite, with some success, being marketed under the name “Premier League of Asia” – it is extremely popular in Thailand, for example – and attracts foreign coaches, in particular the Australian Kevin Muscat at Marinos, who replaced fellow countryman and now Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou.

Spanish veterans such as Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa have also come through in recent years but, aside from the Japanese players, the Brazilians have the most influence, with 56 players last season.

“People say Japan could win the World Cup”

Kaoru Mitoma
Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma is one of eight players who played college football in Japan’s World Cup squad

According to Sebastian Moffett’s book Japanese Rules, when Zico first came to Kashima Antlers in the early 90s, he berated his teammates who laughed after losses, even insisting his translator shout when he did.

Traditionally, Japanese football – which evolved from the corporate leagues – has been accused of lacking a ‘confrontal’ advantage, although this trait appears to be changing.

“We don’t see football as a battle, it’s a sport,” says journalist Masatoshi Mori.

“We are technically very good. Any sport, we are the inventor – we invent new strategies – but football is a bit too difficult to do, it is already very developed and globalized.”

Mori, who follows Japanese stars playing in the UK, was impressed with two national team players who have shown they can lower the physical demands of the Premier League – Arsenal’s Tomiyasu and the Brighton winger Mitoma.

“Tomiyasu is absolutely important,” he says. “He’s the best player at the moment. He plays right-back or left-back for Arsenal, but plays in the center for Japan.

“Physically he’s much stronger, he’s faster. I’ve never seen a Japanese who showed that kind of physical presence in the Premier League.”

Some claim that this Japanese team lacks a goalscoring centre-forward and Mitoma, who followed a leading role in Brighton win 4-1 over Chelsea with goals against Wolves and Arsenal, they are expected to feature.

“After the Chelsea game he became very strong,” says Mori. “I’ve never seen a Japanese player play at this level for three games in a row in England before.

“Japan is playing 4-2-3-1. On the left we have Kubo and on the right we have Junya Ito from Reims. Mitoma can play as a super-sub, but I think he should begin.”

Both will be essential in Japan’s seventh consecutive World Cup and in Hajime Moriyasu they have a boss with the best winning percentage in the country, although the coach has his detractors too.

“There are people who say Japan could win everything with the right coach,” said Orlowitz, a Tokyo-based journalist.

“You know what? They’re not wrong. It’s the deepest pool of players, except maybe one goalkeeper, that the country has ever had.

“There’s a world-class team in every position and the talent there. The question is, is the coaching there? And the answer is ‘no’.”

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