Friday, November 11, 2005

The rising sun interview

In the 9th part of my global interview series we travel to Japan. Depflight hosts a weblog called Lost in Translation. Depflight’s site is dedicated to following the Japanese J-League and Japanese football players around the world such as Nakata at Bolton and Nakamura at Celtic. My thanks for joining in.

FC: By hosting a World Cup in Japan there was obviously a short term impact on the J-League, but now, 3 years on, what impact has it had on the J-League? What about the impact on football at the youth level?

DF: The biggest impact on the Japanese football scene has been the level of pressure put on the Japan national team to qualify for this 2006 WC. Now that we hosted, it became inexcusable for us not to qualify anymore -- but the truth is that we had only qualified once before (aside from hosting it).

In Japan, the national team comes first, and the clubs/league comes second. After that you have the Asian Champions Leagues. So the J-league has had to sacrifice its schedule and players to accomodate the national team in its battle through the qualifiers. Hosting the WC made qualifying a must, but it also meant we hadn't had to go through the qualifiers since 1997. So there was a great learning process in the league in the past couple years.

The most important thing for football in Japan, at any level, is how well it catches on in the minds of the mainstream. In that sense, hosting the World Cup was a huge deal, and attracted a lot of new fans and affected a lot of people -- to see actual Japanese people competing in such a glamorous and internationally reknowned event right in front of their eyes.

One difference between pre and post World Cup 2002 is that we have lost a lot of the top players to the European clubs. I don't think it was entirely due to the World Cup, since many of them probably would have gone over even if we hadn't hosted, but I think losing these stars in the post-WC era did cost some of the J clubs dearly in the sense of attracting and holding on to fringe fans in the short term. Now, the players going over to Europe are getting younger and younger, and the domestic national team players fatigued by the tough schedule, so we are seeing much younger players getting chances to start at various J clubs too. Which I think is a good thing for the future.

The program for development of youth is getting more aggressive and ambitious. The JFA had a plan in place from the beginning, but lately with the way things have played out in the post-2002 era, the JFA has realized their plan was not enough for Japan to catch up to the "world standard". They will soon be opening the doors of a JFA Football Academy (Fukushima) that will pick promising pre-teens and apply an elite education/development course that is modelled after the French Institut National du Football, and recently made official a relationship with the French Football Association for exchange of information, training, advice, etc.

FC: How does the J-League compare to other football leagues in Asia? What are some of the top teams?

DF: I'm not the best person to ask about other leagues in Asia. Most Asians have little knowledge/info of other Asian clubs/leagues. From what I have seen in the Asia Champions League games, the Japanese league seems to be much more technique-oriented, less rough in the sense of how physicality is used in different situations. The Japanese fans do not approve of anything hinting at unsportsmanlike behavior, and in general the league is very friendly and cheerful.

But we have seen from the Asian Champions League over the years, Japan clubs seem to have trouble playing other Asian clubs because of this -- they continue to struggle to get results under tough conditions. This may be an area the J has to get more realistic and tough.

Some of the top teams historically are clubs like Jubilo Iwata, Tokyo Verdy, Yokohama F Marinos, and of course Kashima Antlers (where Zico has a bronze statue by the stadium). But now we have clubs like Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka who are studded with popular players and appeal with a fast attacking style. Right now Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka had a comfortable lead over the rest of the table but are only 3-5 points ahead of Cerezo Osaka, Urawa Reds, and Jef Chiba.

FC: Japan seems to love its sports, how popular is football compared to the more traditional Japanese favorites?

DF: Of course baseball is still considered the top national sport. Up until recently most of the tall athletic types went to baseball as schoolboys, but we are seeing that change to football more now. Though baseball has such a history -- and therefore families pass down the love of a team from generation to generation -- football is becoming more appealing to children.

We are seeing a great deal of attention paid to the Japan national football team -- by far, the National Team gets some of the heaviest sports coverage and scrutiny in the country. When the National team plays, the television broadcast has record viewership numbers. This is the advantage of football over baseball -- the national team. The J League still falls a little behind the baseball league though.

FC: Who are your top 5 Japanese players at the moment? How about 5 players playing in Japan that we have never heard of but you think will become stars?

DF: Right now by far Shunsuke Nakamura is the top with consistent contributions to club and national teams over a long period of time. After a surgery, Shinji Ono recovered in time for Japan's games in Eastern Europe but re-injured the foot, but otherwise he is looking extremely sharp. Hidetoshi Nakata too. These three have so much experience and natural vision for the game that it's hard to not mention them.

I'd also like to direct attention to one of the lesser known European-based players, Daisuke Matsui, who plays at France's Le Mans. He is a young lefty with great elegance in technique and creativity. He has been called up by Zico and played in the games against Latvia and the Ukraine; he has also been chosen for the squad against Angola next week.

In the domestic league two internationals, Mitsuo Ogasawara (midfielder, Kashima Antlers) and Yuji Nakazawa (defender, Yokohama F Marinos), are people I like to keep an eye on. Both of them got offers this year from Europe but had to decline for various reasons. Still, I believe they will become key players in the World Cup, and hope they are able to stay healthy and continue to improve.

In the youth category, more than any other player, I am most convinced Tokyo Verdy's Takayuki Morimoto has a star aura. He is now 17, but scored his first J League goal at the age of 15. I am pretty sure we'll see him in the national team and Europe in the future.

FC: There seems to be a bias in Europe that says you buy Japanese players to sell shirts and have them sit the bench, of course players like Nakata challenge the stereotype, but how is that stereotype viewed in Japan?

DF: I think Japanese on the whole are neither offended or concerned with the stereotype. It is a mark of Japanese fan support that European clubs can make money off of player jerseys, but whether that support continues is up to the club and player. Right now we have nine players in seven European countries, and they are all in different situations -- so it's hard to think of them all as one big stereotype from our point of view, since we follow the details of their individual careers. But maybe if you don't follow Japanese players much, you will see them in this generalized stereotype.

*Please email if you'd like to conduct an interview (over email) or if you know the name of a weblog in your country.


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Blogger JohnBhoy said...

As a committed fan of Celtic Football Club in Scotland, I was initially worried that Shunsuke Nakamura would be too lightweight to cope with the very physical demands of the Scottish Premier League.
But I believe he has shown a great deal of courage to cope with the assaults that have come his way, and this will bear him in good stead for Japan in next year's World Cup.
He is a very talented and very brave footballer.
I (and many other Celtic fans) will be cheering for Japan next summer!

11/12/2005 1:39 AM  
Blogger corrib04 said...

I second that Johnbhoy. Shunsuke is fast becoming a big favourite at Celtic Park.
Adapting to a very different culture, language etc in such a short time demonstates tremendous inner strength.

Whilst we do not see him as a ball winner his effort in closing down the opposition and his general committment to the team has been
excellent. Needless to say this man has a beautiful relationship with a football. The way he tormented the Rangers team on Wednesday was for me proof that he has adapted to the often robust nature of Scottish football.

Best wishes to Japan in the world cup next year. There are many in green and white that will be roaring you on.

11/12/2005 9:53 AM  

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