Wasn’t it great to see Japan defeat, even outplay, Spain at the Olympics? It was a statement that the best of Asia can match the best in the world and especially Europe.
The obsession with European football in parts of Asia can be frustrating. Fans are free to support whichever team they, choose but when they choose to sport the shirt of a team thousands of miles away and turn their noses up at what is on their own doorstep, you have to feel they are missing out on all the best parts of being a football fan – the experience of all kinds of emotions and feelings that are best felt in a stadium with thousands of like-minded others.
It is not always fans either. In September 2011, a K-League delegation ready to reorganize the structure of Asia’s oldest professional league visited Scotland, England, Germany and Netherlands. A similar expedition from China the year before followed a similar route. The idea that there are things to be learned outside the traditional football centres is still not really entertained.
At least the K-League went to Japan and was right to do so. There are certain aspects in which that nation’s football scene need some work, the television deal could be better for the league and the standard of officiating, never great, has been especially poor this season but on the whole Japan is going places – an impression reaffirmed by the Olympics.
The J-League is widely recognized as the best in Asia (as a whole package at least, Korean and Saudi fans would dispute that it is stronger in playing terms), its men’s national team is Asian champion and the women rule the world. It has an increasing number of players in the best leagues around and qualification for the 2014 World Cup is almost a given. What is discussed much more these days is not whether the team will qualify but how far can Samurai Blue go in Brazil.
The success really didn’t come overnight. It is the result of work done 20 or so years ago as authorities implemented a comprehensive youth development program. I recently talked to the man who did much of the planning and persuading. “It was difficult to start,” recalled Japan FA Vice-president Kozo Tashima. “We have 47 prefectures and each had a different method. They wanted to go their own way but we showed them the gap between the world and Japan. It actually took five or six years to get the message across…we wanted a level of consistency around the country.”
“Consistency is everything but it did not happen easily, we constantly had to remind and remind the different prefectures about what we were trying to do. After a while, they could see it was working.”
The 47 prefectures and Tokyo focused on finding the best Under-12 players in their district and connecting them with a growing number of coaches that specialized in how to develop young players. The best of these go to the closest regional centre and the best of these move up to national elite centres. Here they focus on the technical aspects of the game for three years before they start to think about strategy and tactics.
It wasn’t and isn’t cheap (but then some of the money paid to European teams to come to Asia would make a meaningful contribution) but it was far-sighted. Talking to people at all levels of Japanese football and what stands out is the willingness of people to leave their own interests at the door and work towards the common good. Politics is not non-existent but it is not the overriding factor.
And this coupled with a national association that has the vision, the organizational skills and the determination to make it happen, as well as the finances to ensure the best facilities and coaches, then you have a winning formula.
There are other factors. The J-League started at a similar time, not a coincidence, and the clubs in the top two divisions are all obliged to have various youth teams and academies. Despite a couple of wobbles, the league became good enough quite quickly to give young players a strong platform for them to perform and improve and eventually play on the international stage.
The Japanese experience did not come easily and is not an easy example to follow for countries and associations without the funds. Increasingly across Asia however, it is possible to read of huge salaries offered to veteran European players or huge appearance fees for European teams to visit, and you have to wonder how much it would actually cost to follow the Japanese model. But in the end, money is not everything, if you don’t have everyone pulling together, success is going to remain elusive.
At least Japan shows that it is not always about Europe, there are examples of success within Asia and these are examples with much more relevance. Japan’s youth development system is one of the best in the world.
Japan is not a country with 150 years of football history. Even 20 years ago, it had no professional league. Football is still not the most popular sport, though it is getting there, and the nation’s football culture, now thriving, was a late bloomer.
With a win over Spain and a medal a real possibility at the Olympics, Japan shows that it is never too late to get a house in order and planning for the medium and long-term instead of the short.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.