THE J-LEAGUE AT 20

This might come as crushing news to any lingering Oasis fans out there but the band are, officially, no longer big – not even in Japan. Recently, supporters of J-League side Nagoya Grampus stopped singing their unofficial club song, ‘Don’t look back in anger’, replacing it instead with a Japanese anthem. Could be that they just got sick of it, but in a nation where football clubs and their fans have for so long looked to Europe for guidance with the unquestioning gaze of true acolytes at the feet of their guru, this small step just might be more significant than it first appears.

The J-League is 20 years old this year, officially the age of majority in Japan. This is surely a cause for celebration but, in truth, it hasn’t been an entirely trouble-free maturation. In two decades the league has faced numerous challenges, survived several lean years, and grown into quite a different animal from that which first appeared in its inaugural season.

That first year the J-League featured just 10 sides and was, remarkably enough, the first professional league in the country. It aimed were to raise playing standards at club and international level (particularly to compete with arch-rivals Korea, who’d had their own professional league for ten years), and offer a serious alternative to the established powerhouse sports of baseball, sumo and golf.

The Japanese, always excited by shinhatsubei (new products), took to the new league like a bored child suddenly presented with a shiny new toy. The first season was a riotous success, with a cluster of fading but still luminescent stars adding much needed glamour and credibility. Vestiges of amateurism remained: Hiroshima Sanfrecce turned up for one game without their kit, and had to borrow shirts from the fans in the stadium, attaching numbers with tape – but, on the whole, things went well.

The fun lasted about three years. Those confident baby steps soon led to an almighty stumble; attendances started to plummet around 1996, which compounded the financial difficulties the clubs were already suffering as a result of their roster of highly-paid imports. An over-rapid expansion (8 clubs had joined in 4 years), which brought an inevitable drop in quality, was also blamed for the diminishing interest. With the all important sponsors also starting to drift away, the J-League project was starting to look like a false dawn in the land of the rising sun.

Salvation came about as a result of a major re-think on the part of the administrators. As part of the slightly creepy sounding ‘Hundred Year Vision’ the league structure was changed dramatically to accommodate a second division (J2), which added the excitement of relegation. Moreover, match rules were harmonized with the European leagues and a series of gimmicky features such as golden goals and penalty shoot-outs (drawn games having initially been deemed ‘un-Japanese’) were dropped. A daft split season format was retained for a while, but it too was done away with in 2005.

A series of psychological hurdles were also successfully overcome; the World Cup in 2002 proved that Japan could perform respectably at a major tournament, the 2010 tournament proved they could do so without a foreign coach, and, thrillingly,and to the Japanese themselves almost unbelievably, 2011 and the heroics of Nadeshko Japan, proved they could even win. All this added confidence filtered down to the clubs who increasingly sensed they could stand on their own two feet without the ratification or support of footballs established nations.

And the 2005 season proved just how thrilling the new J-League could be, with 5 times entering the final day of the season with a shot at the title, something just about unthinkable in the ‘major’ European leagues. If you thought the recent Mancunian face-off was exciting, consider a day when the league leaders Cerezo Osaka fell from first to fifth as a result of a last minute conceded goal, losing the title to hated cross-town rivals Gamba into the bargain.

These rites of passage moments helped the J-League create its own history and forge its own identity and have given it the momentum to stride confidently into adulthood and deal with whatever challenges present themselves. The leagues reaction to last March’s earthquake to immediately suspend play was lauded and contrasted creditably with baseball’s initial decision to play on as normal. In addition, the example of Frontale players to visit the affected areas, bringing much needed textbooks for local schools, is just one of many, many worthy projects initiated by J league clubs.

A key factor in the ability of the J-League to resuscitate itself is the fact that it is overseen by Japan’s ministry of education, who, mindful of how commercial and showbizzy Japanese baseball has become, have endeavoured to keep the league as real as possible by stressing the importance of clubs staying close to their roots. No one side is allowed to become too powerful – Verdy Kawasaki’s early attempt to become the Manchester United of Japan was quickly slapped down. Today the J-League remains remarkably open and competitive.

Youth development is also crucial The J-League has nine regional training centres and a national elite academy. Players join J-League clubs at a very young age and are carefully nurtured. When the time comes, the best players graduate into a club’s first team. The very best make a further step up by leaving to join clubs overseas. These departing stars, worshipped back home, inspire the next generation of young talent. And so the cycle continues.

Urawa Reds are the much trumpeted poster club for the reinvigortated J-League, attracting crowds of 40,000 of the most boisterous and passionate fans to be found anywhere in Asia. Their fierce pride has given new confidence to residents of their, actually rather unlovely, part of Tokyo, and seen them establish themselves as a vital part of the community. Another notable exampe is Tosu, recently promoted from J2 who have worked hand in hand with schools and local government to form a close bond with their community to the benefit of all.

It’s fair to say then that the J-League at 20 looks in pretty good shape, with no need whatsoever to look back in anger, but forward with great confidence. It is a genuinely competitive league with a heart and soul. Crowds are healthy, the clubs are financially sound and in touch with the hopes and aspirations of their local communities; fans are passionate, well-behaved and knowledgeable and often 50% or more female, and the youth development system works to the benefit of all the clubs and the national team.

Oh, and tickets cost around 15 pounds. The Premier League, also 20 this year, could learn a lot.

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