Japanese soccer - the J-League

Soccer was introduced to Japan by British instructors at the Japanese Naval Academy in 1873. Over the years, the sport became popular at schools across the country and in 1921, a national soccer association was set up. But the lack of a professional league and the subsequent low standard of the national team meant that soccer remained a sleeper sport. For years there was only the Japan Soccer League, whose players were basically ordinary employees of their team's sponsor. As with amateur sport everywhere, most players actually had other jobs.

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Soccer really took off in Japan in the 1990's. The first professional league, the J-League, was established in 1992 and kicked off in May of the following year. The league started with 10 teams - Gamba Osaka, JEF United Ichihara, Kashima Antlers, Nagoya Grampus Eight, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Shimizu S-Pulse, Urawa Red Diamonds, Verdy Kawasaki, Yokohama Flugels and Yokohama Marinos. Between 1994 and 1998, eight teams (Avispa Fukuoka, Bellmare Hiratsuka, Cerezo Osaka, Consadole Sapporo, Jubilo Iwata, Kashiwa Reysol, Kyoto Purple Sanga, Vissel Kobe) were promoted from the lower Japan Football League (JFL) so that the J-League numbered 18 teams. At the end of the 1998 season, for the first time a team (Consadole) was demoted to the JFL and the two Yohohama teams merged due to financial problems and became the Yokohama F Marinos. Further tweaks to the system left the current numbers of 18 teams in the J-League, now called J1 and in the JFL, now called J2.

J1 teams (1999)

The 16 teams in the J1 for the 1999 season

In addition to the leagues, there is the Emperor's Cup. This tournament is open to any soccer team in Japan, professional or amateur. There are regional playoffs to decide the teams from each prefecture and there are also places assigned for university teams. The qualifying teams and the JFL teams play in the first and second rounds and J1 teams receive a bye into the third round. The tournament is held in November and December with the final on New Year's Day.

The complicated rearrangements to the league came together with various changes to the rules of the game. The J-League was the first to use the Golden Goal rule, allowing the first team to score in extra time to win. Failure to score a Golden Goal meant games were decided on penalties - but the winning team got only 2 instead of 3 points. This was later changed so that drawn games are now possible. It's hard to say whether this multitude of changes to the game was an attempt to bring back fans who were drifting away from the sport or whether it actually caused the problem in the first place. Another part of the teething pains of the league was the financial aspect. When the league started, Japan had not yet really begun to feel the effects of the post-bubble economy. Some famous names from abroad such as Gary Lineker, Zico, Pierre Littbarski and Dunga came and lined their pension funds in the new league. With financial short-sightedness equal to that of the banks and trading companies, team rosters were bloated and players' salaries were sky-high. It's perhaps not surprising that a lot of encounters on the pitch seemed more like a clash of players' egos than ball skills.

This was particularly the case (unsurprisingly) with the Yomiuri-sponsored Verdy Kawasaki team. Although they were the first professional team in the country, as Yomiuri Nippon, their attempts to continue this name (Yomiuri Nippon Verdy, the Nippon implying that they were Japan's team) brought down the wrath of the other teams and the League. The team also boasted the talents of some of the best-known players, especially Miura Kazuyoshi or 'Kazu' and Ruy Ramos, a naturalized Brazilian. Kazu had spent some time playing in Brazil and his flamboyant style, on and off the pitch, won him many fans. After an unsuccessful 1998-9 season in Croatia, he returned to Japan to play for Kyoto Purple Sanga. Ramos in his prime was the key to both the Verdy and national teams, a natural 'midfield general' who could slice through defenses with his accurate passing.

Striker Jo Shoji

Striker Jo Shoji World Cup 1998

1999 World Youth Championship

Runners-up in the 1999 World Youth Championship

Nakata Hidetoshi

Nakata Hidetoshi of Perugia (later AS Roma and Parma)

The Japanese national team has come along well since the formation of the J-League, and in the case of the women's team the improvement has been phenomenal. The men surprised everyone with a 1-0 defeat of Brazil at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The Olympic team again did very well in the 2000 Sydney games until a somewhat immature performance saw them lose to the US. They qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and the team's solid performance, despite not winning a single game, impressed many people. The talented young Bellmare midfielder Nakata Hidetoshi (1977- ) particularly caught the eye and soon after the tournament he signed to play for Perugia in the Italian Serie A, later transferring to title contender AS Roma. Other players, such as Nanami Hiroshi, Jo Shoji and Nakamura Shunsuke made their way to Europe as the ability of Japanese players became more recognized.

But in terms of results on the world stage, Japan's men have been totally overshadowed by the achievements of the women's national team. Since losing their first ever international 0-1 against India in 1986, "Nadeshiko Japan" have become one of the world's strongest teams. They won the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2011 and were runners-up in both the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 World Cup.

The national youth team took the soccer world by surprise in the 1999 World Youth Championship in Nigeria, losing in the final to Spain. Hosting of the 2002 World Cup was awarded jointly to bitter rivals Japan and South Korea. But in the end, the organizational and technical skills of both countries overrode their ill feelings towards one another and the event was considered a great success. Japan qualified again for the World Cup in Germany in 2006, but failed to impress. As the initial celebrity culture around the J-League has faded, the sport and the players have matured to the point that Japan has been able to challenge South Korea for dominance of the Asian region. The two countries qualified for the 2010 World Cup on the same day.

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