The J-League, Japan’s top football league, is generally known as the best league this side of Asia. But such is the ubiquity of the English Premier League that it is still the most popular league even in the Southeast Asian region, with clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea becoming household names. With their large fan bases in Asia, these teams regularly tour the region in the pre-season with huge marketing gains. But the J-League – while it wants to grow more into the region – does not want to fight the EPL’s superiority in these terms.
“We fully understand how popular the English Premier League is in Southeast Asia,” Daisuke Nakanishi, J-League director of competitions and sales management said in an interview. “That’s why we think that there is no way of winning if we apply the same approach in the market, and we believe that we should do something different,” Nakanishi added. The J-League plans to leverage on the proximity and cultural similarities in Asia to grow organically into the region. “We are in Asia, so we are close to the region geographically and mentally, and Japan is the only country which used to be very weak but has grown rapidly in very short period,” Nakanishi said. “So we can be a role model. We are more than happy to share our know how with Southeast Asia in order to develop together,” he concluded.
Unlike the English Premier League, which is all but a pipe dream for most Southeast Asian players, the J-League provides good competition that is accessible – maybe not as good, but not so good as to be unreachable. “In the near future, we hope that there will be many star Southeast Asian players playing in the J-League, which makes the J-League more visible and popular in the region,” Nakanishi said. “This is a unique approach which the English Premier League does not have.” Worawi Makudi, president of the Thailand Football Association, agrees that Japan has much to offer as a footballing role model for developing nations in Asia. “At the moment, the English Premier League is popular and is tough to beat, but maybe the Japanese league in terms of broadcasting rights can grow,” Worawi said. “If Japanese clubs have Thai players then people in Thailand would like to watch them.”
The prime example for Southeast Asian players, and maybe the standard for these regional athletes making it in the J-League could be in the hands of Vietnamese star striker Le Cong Vinh. The striker was talented enough to turn the head of Portuguese club Leixoes in 2009, but went largely unnoticed there. Last month, he joined Consadole Sapporo, a team in Japan’s second tier. Ngo Le Bang, general secretary of the Vietnamese Football Federation has high hopes for this transfer. “Le Cong Vinh is one of our best players,” Bang said. “Firstly his appearance in Japan, even in the second division, could promote the image of Vietnamese football, and then after him there could be other opportunities.”