In the early 1990s, Brazilian legend Zico returned from a short sabbatical to finish his playing days in Japan with a low profile club that would later be called Kashima Antlers. Money was indeed a motivator, but Zico also went there because of the Japanese players’ genuine willingness to learn.
Sometimes, Sebastian Moffett – the author of Japanese rules – noted, it went a bit too far. After games, when Zico broke down the moves and pointed out the mistakes, the local players recorded every word of his meticulous analysis. “A few minutes before the next game, they pulled out these notes and began reviewing them, as if they were for a test,” Moffett wrote in the Guardian in 2002.
There were times when Zico lashed out at his teammates for taking defeat lightly and while doing so insisted that his translator also shout so that the words and tone were not lost – a bit like Herve Renard and his interpreter during the halftime Saudi Arabian players received against Argentina.
These nuggets provide fascinating insights into Japanese football in the 90s – there was curiosity and great attention to detail, but there was also a total lack of will to win.
Thirty years later, Japan is still obsessed with details rather than consumed by the outcome. However, there is a burning desire to win. Nothing illustrated this better than Kaoru Mitoma’s desperate attempt to keep the ball in play as it rolled over the touchline and cut it back for Ao Tanaka to score.
The goal showed that lightning can strike at least twice – days after beating Germany, Japan stunned Spain to the top of Group E and set up a round of 16 against Croatia. Six months ago, when the World Cup was drawn, few would have bet that Japan would come out of a group that included the 2010 and 2014 world champions, let alone beat them both and come out on top.
Yet they are here. Rewarded for patience in a sport where patience is not considered a virtue; rewarded for adopting a boring bottom-up approach to development when countries often seek lazy ways out; rewarded for, well, being quintessentially Japanese.
Modern international football can conveniently be broken down into three broad categories: countries with an established culture; countries that take advantage of the diaspora population or are even willing to naturalize foreign talent as a short-term solution that helps them achieve flash results; and then there are countries like Japan.
Among the many shops that add to the sights and sounds of Shinjuku, the bustling Tokyo area that is a business district by day and transforms into a neon-lit entertainment center after dark, one in particular stands out: a small shop close to the train station with retro football shirts sticking out. There are Cruyff’s Barcelona colors to Beckham’s United and everything in between.
Sharing the space is the jersey of Zico’s Kashima Antlers and a dozen other J-League clubs.
Thirty years ago, the J-League was founded with this vision: to enable clubs to share space with top European leagues.
The league then only had 10 teams. Now, after decades of hard work building a pyramid, the number of teams in the top three divisions has increased from 10 to 60, covering about 80 percent of the country. The amateur players – who took notes of everything Zico, Dunga, Jorginho, Ramon Diaz, Toto Schillaci, Gary Lineker and the rest said – grew into seasoned professionals.
The young players who once didn’t get the chance to play in their own league – largely because of the culture of respecting seniority in Japan – are now shining not only at home, but also in Europe. In 2002, when Japan and South Korea hosted the World Cup, only four players from the squad played abroad. In Qatar, 19 of the 26 play in European competitions – there are more players in this squad who play in the German Bundesliga (8) than in the J-League (7).
And so, while Japan has played the World Cup consistently since 1998, this time more than ever they went out feeling equal to the Germans and the Spaniards. They wouldn’t just be scammers.
All this is a result of a multiple view. In 1992, when the league was founded, a hundred-year plan was drawn up to win the World Cup in 2092. Several short-term goals were set along the way.
Expanding the league’s footprint was one of them. That in turn led to an increase in the player base and a coach development program was started to train them; a plan based on the fact that it is often homegrown coaches who have won their country the World Cup. Hajime Moriyasu, who outsmarts Hansi Flick and Luis Enrique, is a product of this mindset.
Experts, such as American coach Tom Byer, who is credited with transforming Japan’s youth coaching structure, instilled a philosophy where children were first taught to master ball control and then worry about tactics.
It meant that over time the Japanese players became adept at precise control and one-on-one situations such as stepovers and body feints. With speed already their greatest ally, these skills transformed the players into the best in Asia, underlined when Japan won the continental championship four times between 1992 and 2011.
Once the J-League was established as the ‘Premier League of Asia’, the focus shifted to developing players who can flourish in Europe. The clubs there have let go of the stereotype of the Japanese not being physically strong enough to compete, while also realizing that signing them makes financial sense too – they sign them cheaply and sell them for potentially huge profits. But the numbers are not nearly enough.
And so, as the next step in their progress, Japan – in 2016 – declared its ambition to become an export hub of footballers, with the year 2030 as the target. They called it ‘Project DNA’ – Developing Natural Skills.
Six years ago, Japanese football officials went on a quest across Europe and came into contact not with the biggest football clubs, which would lend them brand value, but by joining forces with teams with the best academies. West Ham United for example.
It may be too early to say that Project DNA is the reason why so many Japanese players are now asserting their presence in European competitions. But yes, it wouldn’t be the Japanese way to expect instant success. In an industry where nations go for glitz and glamor to create a football as if it were like two minute noodles, Japan has shown that being boring is the greatest act of courage in football development.