When the J-League debuted in 1993, little did they know that football would become a big hit in baseball-obsessed Japan. But not only did the league make sports fan fall in love with the sport, it was also a trailblazer for Asian football. But while expensive foreign players proliferated the league then, today the J-League has become a source of local talent for European clubs and this is where world-class Japanese football players’ talents are honed.
The first three goalscorers back in the first game of the league between Verdy Kawasaki and Yokohama Marineros were all foreigners; Dutch striker Hennie Meijer scored the first ever J-League goal for Verdy before Brazil’s Everton and Argentine Ramon Diaz did the same for Yokohama. But now, it’s a different story as homegrown players like Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo were plucked from the J-League by bigger European clubs and the league also supplies a steady stream of players for Japan’s National Team, the Samurai Blue. Gone are the days when clubs would splash money to get the likes of Gary Lineker, Zico Pierre Littbarski, Dunga, Jorginho, Patrick M’Boma and Dragan Stojkovic to play for the clubs and pay them as much as 3 million dollars a year.
Saburo Kawabuchi, the league’s inaugural chairman until 2002, says that you won’t be able to find a league anywhere else in the world that developed as fast as the J-League did in just 20 years. From the original 10 clubs, the league has now grown to 40 teams, prompting the creation of a second division created in 1999. A third tier will be added next year, and the teams are expected to grow to 50. Attendance started to ebb to 12,000 in the late 90s, but bounced back big after Japan co-hosted the World Cup in 2002. Last year, average attendance was at 17,566, the 11th among the world’s first divisions. J-league clubs Urawa Red Diamonds and Gamba Osaka won the AFC Champions League in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
“The biggest dream of children is to become J-League players first of all and aspire to come up big in top European clubs,” Kawabuchi said. 25 Japanese players are now playing for European first division teams, including Kagawa for Manchester United, Nagatomo for Inter Milan, Keisuke Honda for CSKA Moscow. Half of the 25 play in the Bundesliga, Germany’s first division. However, the players exodus to Europe, while good for the National Team, may eventually create a vacuum in the J-League. They have to make sure that the clubs will continuously develop local talent so the league will not suffer in quality.
[ via Channel News Asia ]
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