The final 8 places of the Football World Cup have been won and unfortunately Japan has not made it. Japan was arguably Asia’s last hope. Japan’s rise in Asian and even World football is a remarkable story. I have commissioned my very own brother (the in-house football expert) to narrate this story. He follows football around the world very closely. So, brace yourself for a long and interesting story over many posts.
Given that football is the world’s most popular sport (FIFA currently has 207 member nations), it should come as no surprise that the ‘Beautiful Game’ has its own special place in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. This has however not always been the case with ‘Sakka’ (Soccer in Japanese). Traditionally, baseball and Sumo wrestling have always enjoyed a huge fan following which continues to be the case to this day. Baseball’s huge following can be traced back to the US occupying forces Americans introducing and popularising the sport in Japan. Football though, was slightly late to the party, but has seen its stock rise in Japan considerably since.
It all started way back in 1921 with the ‘Emperor’s Cup’. This was Japan’s first ever national football championship and it formed the roots for Japan’s first steps in the game. The first edition of this storied tournament saw just 4 teams take part and the winner ‘Tokyo Shukyu-Dan’, was awarded the trophy by the Emperor himself. The idea for the tournament came about courtesy an advertisement in an English newspaper. The trophy was made in England and came from the English Football Association (FA). This trophy was used until 1945 after which the current trophy that bears the imperial chrysanthemum seal, was used. The finals of this stadium has always been played at the Tokyo National Stadium (but will now be moved to a new location after it was decided that the stadium would be renovated for the 2020 Olympics). The Emperor’s Cup remains one of the two best known tournaments in the world that have been named after the monarch (the other being the ‘Copa Del Rey’ in Spain…no less). The tournament would go on to produce many thrilling encounters over the years with the finals always being played in front of a full-house. In recent years however, stadium attendances for the tournament have dwindled and it appears to have taken on the role of being not much better than just another event in the calendar year. While there are reasons for this, one major reason is that it is an open tournament much like the FA cup in England. This means that any football association (FA) registered team from any tier of football in the nation can compete in the tournament. With football becoming progressively more commercialized, the matches have become more predictable with cash strapped teams unable to compete with the financial elite. While the occurrence of a ‘Giant Killing’ or a huge upset was not uncommon in the early pre-professional days, the disparities between the teams have become so large that the top ones can afford to send out their reserve team and still emerge victorious. This has killed spectator interest in 2 ways; the first one being the predictable nature of the games and the second being the absence of the star players. Also, the only incentive to win the tournament is an AFC Champions league spot which isn’t considered important even by the best teams (More of this later). Although the Emperor’s Cup is in need of a makeover, it still forms a special part of Japan’s footballing history and its significance cannot be understated.
In spite of the foundation being laid for the growth of the game, football didn’t exactly catch fire in Japan after the introduction of the Emperor’s Cup. In fact, it wasn’t until 1964 that Japan finally got a taste of success in the international arena. In 1960, the Japanese Football Association (JFA) decided to hire a German manager called Dettmar Cramer to lead Japan in the right direction. This proved to be a pivotal decision in the history of the sport as Cramer went on to set up much of the coaching infrastructure and policies for grooming future coaches. Cramer also oversaw FIFA’s first ever coaching course in Japan in 1969. More importantly, Cramer led Japan to a shock victory over Argentina in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Sensing the fact that Japan was steadily improving, he helped start Japan’s first ever national league which went by the name ‘Japan Soccer League (JSL)’. The league had 8 founding teams which included the likes of Hitachi Ltd, Furukawa Electric, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Yanmar Diesel. The league further expanded into 2 divisions and included promotion and relegation as well. These teams were essentially company owned teams and its players were paid by their companies almost exclusively to play football. This league continued till its abandoning in 1992 and paved the way for Japan’s first major international success. In the meantime, Cramer had got contracted by FIFA on a global tour but returned to Japan and led them to a bronze medal in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The tournament also saw the birth of Japan’s first true star in the form of Kunishige Kamamoto. He was Japan’s top scorer at the Olympics and would later go on to become Japan’s all-time top scorer while successfully representing Yanmar Diesel for several seasons.
This was a huge shot in the arm for Asian football and the timing couldn’t have been better, given North Korea’s phenomenal run in the 1966 world cup just two years earlier. Things were looking extremely positive for Asia and Japan or so it seemed. Sadly for Japan, they would not taste any major success until nearly 3 decades later. The effects of the good work done by Cramer soon wore off and it appeared as if his success may have just been a flash in the pan and a coincidence of a golden generation of Japanese footballers. Japan didn’t find any success even in Asia for the next 2 decades, as they either withdrew from the Asian cup or did not qualify.
All wasn’t bleak however. Some important events were taking place that would change the future of Japan football forever. A certain Mr. Yoichi Takahashi went to see the 1978 world cup in Argentina as an observer but the impact of the world cup on his mind would cause him to influence Japanese football in ways that even he probably wouldn’t have envisioned (The impact of this is debatable but this author views this event as one that had a far reaching impact). Meanwhile, Yasuhiko Okudera also became Japan’s first footballer to play overseas. He successfully represented the likes of FC Koln, Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin for several seasons as a midfielder before ending his career in Japan in 1988. His experiences in Germany exposed him to a level of professionalism that had been sorely lacking in Japan, particularly in the JSL. He then put forward the idea of forming a professional league to replace the semi-professional JSL; he believed that this was the only way forward for Japanese football. A footballing revolution was about to begin…….
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