Transforming Japanese soccer
By our Japan correspondent, Neil Smith
Back when the Japan Football Association (JFA) was preparing to launch the J-League, players developed their skills at primary, junior, and high schools, then at university.
This was also the case with rugby and other sports.
This is where all the necessary contacts were made and coming from a strong high school or university definitely smoothed the path to becoming a national representative.
The Corporates dominate the scene
Corporates dominated professional sports, whether it be soccer, rugby, baseball, volleyball, ice hockey, hockey, basketball, or track and field.
Large companies had sports teams as a form of advertising. A baseball game lasts for about three hours and for the entire game, spectators are watching Yakult or Softbank or Hanshin or Yomiuri battling it out. In rugby you had Toyota, Kobe Steel, Toshiba, and the list goes on.
Soccer was the same too, teams being known by the company name.
The local sports club we grew up with barely existed as a concept in Japan, and where it did, it was only for people who were not aiming for higher honours and the concept of a home ground did not exist.
Clubs commonly trained at the local public grounds when available or a local junior high or high school and had little or no connection with any of the professional teams, regardless of the sport.
The Japan Football Association (JFA) has a vision
Despite the weak state of soccer in Japan at the time, the JFA had a vision for the sport, encapsulated in its “100-Year Plan”. Hosting the World Cup in 2002 was one important cog in this dream, perhaps because it imposed a deadline on the reforms they wished to implement.
In discussions with senior officials, I was told that WC2002 was seen more as a tool to aid the JFA in achieving its objectives than as a final objective.
The head of the JFA at the time, Saburo Kawabuchi, realized that if Japan were to host the World Cup without being a laughing stock, it had to raise the level of local players, a matter discussed in the first two parts (the creation of a professional league and attracting top overseas stars. (Scroll down to September 8 and 12).
An appropriate structure to promote the game
He also realized that soccer needed a structure in place to ensure that the base broadened and the players’ level continued rising.
The JFA had to transform itself from an archaic, amateurish semi-voluntary body dominated by an “old boys network” in which promotion was linked to the school or university attended.
After buying its own headquarters building with profits from WC2002, the JFA set about this transformation, starting with creating a proper business structure and hiring external specialists where needed, in areas such as finance, PR, strategy, club support, etc.
Now when you visit JFA headquarters, it is no different from visiting any well-run company’s head office.
Kawabuchi also proposed a radical move: removing the corporate names and switching to a model of the name of the town or city in which the team was based and a team name.
Yes, the same model common in the US, the UK, or throughout Europe: NY Yankees, Manchester United, Barcelona, Canterbury Crusaders, etc. We will come back to this later.
What exactly is this 100-Year Plan?
“The J-League 100 Year Plan ~ making a happier country through sport” as our slogan, we will build sports facilities and grounds covered in verdant grass, we will operate multi-faceted sports clubs with soccer at their core and aim to build an environment in which people from top athletes to lifelong adherents can enjoy the sport they want to do at that time, and we will provide a place in which people of all generations can mingle and meet through sport.”
Sport for school students was all co-coordinated by athletic associations for primary, junior high, and high schools respectively, all under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Sport.
Each primary school had its own team participating in leagues with other schools. In a move to encourage more participation in kids’ sport by local residents, the primary school athletic association was disbanded about 20 years ago, with soccer and local sports clubs established nationwide.
These clubs tended to be general clubs offering a wide range of sporting activities and funded in the main by the local authorities.
(In the next article Neil will look at how the JFA went about changing the system.)