Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mr. Takatsuki Attacks Japanese Football. I Think He Is Dead Wrong

I know I've written at length on the J-League somewhere, and how it is different from professional baseball here, but I can't find it on my blog. Too bad. It would have shed much light on this article. But here goes.

Mr. Takatsuki as gotten into his head that Japanese football, or "soccer" in his BBCese, is going to be ruined because teenage stars are bypassing the J-League to go directly to Europe. Nothing can be further from the truth. I think he is dead wrong. Let me explain.

Mr. Takatsuki draws an analogy with the state of affairs in Brazil and Argentina, where, in his words, "[e]very year, hundreds of Brazilians and Argentines are sold off [to Europe], at an increasingly younger age". He worries that "[i]f it continues to lose its best young players, very soon it will consist of only the mediocre and the once brilliant." He chastises J-League chairman Kenji Onitake for being shortsighted when he claims that "[the players] can learn as much about the soccer in the countries they are in as well as the cultural differences and become stronger, and hopefully they can bring that back to Japan and make our players better."

Okay, that's maybe stretching it a little, Mr. Onitake. But compared to Mr. Takatsuki and his complete ignorance of the J-League game plan and the situation on the ground, as well as the fact that Japan, the last time I looked, was a market economy, Mr. Onitake is Jack Welch.

Let's face it, we are not going to sell off hundreds of our high school footballers to Europe, for the simple reason that Europe cannot pay the kind of money it takes to entice them to make the jump. Japan, for all its economic travails during the post-bubble years, is economically still miles ahead of every country in Latin America and on a par at least with Western Europe. Then there's the language problem. And all the rest of the cultural issues that they will face when they go over there. So, unless Japanese football and economy really tank, it is the elite, and elite only, the superstars (at each level), who are moreover willing to make the cultural adjustments, for whom the financial incentives are sufficient to make tem take the plunge.

Moreover, Mr. Takatsuki completely ignores the institutional setup in Japan that is the envy of all Asian football leagues. The J-League, working hand in glove with the Japan Soccer Association, has built a two-tier professional league complemented by JFL, a subsidiary junior varsity league consisting of J-League aspirants and the top teams from the regional leagues. The J-League enforces strict standards to ensure that the clubs have the facilities and local support to ensure their sustainability. The Urawa Reds are fast becoming the class act in Asian football, routinely drawing 50,000 supporters to its home games.

It is not only the most powerful clubs that have arrived. Albirex Niigata, snowbound hometown of Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary prime minister and Huey Long, Russell Long, and Bill Clinton rolled into one, made it into the original (don't ask) JFL in 1998. Although it only managed to finish 11th among 16 teams competing, it made it into the second division of the J-League when it expanded to a two-tier structure and a new JFL was established. Albirex finally made it to the top division in 2004, when it set a new J-League season attendance record. It continued to have success at the gate in 2006, routinely drawing 30,000-50,000 spectators to its home games, when it skirted dangerously close to relegation. Rest assured, Albirex does not boast international superstars.

Granted, no teams are as well off as the Reds and Albirex, and some top tier teams struggle to draw 10,000 when they drop out of contention. But there are clearly factors other than star power at play.

Japanese football is not without its problems. It can no longer repeat the international glamour of its inaugural years, when many regulars from the Brazilian Selecão and other football nations graced Japan's greatest teams, and some of the clubs remain saddled with debt. But, for better or worse, Brazil, Japan is not. So, what has Japanese football done that makes it work?

First, Japanese football has come down strongly on hooliganism. Fan clubs see to it that the regulars mind their manners. As a result, a Japanese football game is one of the few such occasions on this planet where women, children and even the elderly can be seen enjoying the day out, rooting for their favorite team and players. It is no accident that Japanese fans have been more successful on the international stage than their game-playing counterparts.

Second, Japanese football has always had a global outlook. The Japanese objective is nothing less than a World Cup trophy in this century. Unlike baseball, where the Yomiuri Giants lead an ultimately futile attempt to emulate the American Big Brother, Japanese football gleefully admits its shortcomings, yet the smallest pre-schooler pushing the ball along with his leg is connected through multiple degrees of separation to Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Cristão Ronaldo. So what if we lose Sho Ito, Umezaki, and Hirayama (oops, he's back, damaged goods)? The beautiful game goes on.

Third, children actually play football. Once upon a time, baseball was the national pastime. But baseball is dangerous. And hot, when you are in full uniform, during the summer days. And not everybody gets a touch. Baseball is not cool. The almighty Yomiuri Group stands behind professional Japanese baseball, and the two annual high school tournaments are the Japanese equivalent of March Madness and the BSC Championship. (And when will US MLS overtake the NHL?) Still, you do tend to take interest in the whole game when your kids are on the field as well.

Yes, Japanese football will continue to lose some (but by no means all) of its best prospects, as well as established stars. Yes, we wish we could keep them. But to suggest that Japan will go the way of Brazil and Argentina (but don't write them off completely, you never know) is just plain dumb. Mr. Takatsuki should be glad that his misbegotten piece appears only on the English language Asahi website.

If you think this post is particularly venomous, chalk it up to cheap whiskey. Not satisfied? Then blame it on this snide remark from Mr. Takatsuki:

"The best administrators enter business or politics, not football. So, they can't be blamed for not having considered a solution for any possible scenario that could challenge the status quo"

You see, I hate cheap shots. Unless they are funny.

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