Big in Japan: European Legends, Football-On-Demand, and the Globalisation of the J.League

Formed in 1992, the J.League was established to advance the quality and improve the popularity of the sport in the island country. Initially attracting interest thanks to the acquisition of household names in European football and the steady improvement of the national team, the league introduced its ‘100 year vision’ at the end of the twentieth century, but would see popularity begin to wane thanks to the increased profile and spending power in the Chinese Super League. Now, with an innovative and lucrative broadcast deal and the resurrection of big-name signings, the J.League is thriving. We spoke to JSoccer Magazine founder Alan Gibson to get the inside scoop. 

23rd September, 2018; Saitama Stadium, Midori-ku. 55,689 fans have packed into the ground to watch Urawa Red Diamonds comfortably brush Vissel Kobe aside 4-0. It will remain Urawa’s highest attendance of the season, and the highest attendance recorded across the league. This wasn’t a crucial game in the championship race, however. Nor an end of season playoff. Many thousands of the fans that made the journey to the Kanagawa prefecture to witness the match weren’t even necessarily there to cheer the home side on to victory. They were there to catch a glimpse of the J.League’s biggest star, Andrés Iniesta.

For European football fans, the J.League conjures up memories of a baggy-shirted Gary Lineker playing out his career at Nagoya Grampus Eight, Arsene Wenger’s heartfelt farewell at the same club before joining Arsenal, or Brazilian greats like Zico, Careca and Dunga enjoying a swansong as the stars of a newly established league.  Twenty-five years later, its positioning itself at the vanguard of responsible and progressive football governance, encouraging clubs to promote sports and health activities in their local communities, and to build strong relationships with their hometowns at a grassroots level. Unlike in Europe, where many fans are treated as an inconvenience, the J.League has put measures in place to encourage supporter interaction with clubs in the hopes of boosting the profile of football in the country. Slowly but surely, its beginning to pay dividends.

“The number of professional teams has grown slowly. Entry to the league is well-controlled to ensure a team is a club, is a part of the community and will grow the league and the area.”
Alan Gibson, JSoccer Magazine

The outsider’s attitude to Japanese football began to change in 1998, when the men’s national team qualified for their first World Cup. Though a poor showing in France saw them lose all three group games, it was the beginning of a twenty year sequence that has seen the Samurai Blue qualify for every tournament since. In 2002, as the nation hosted the competition with neighbours South Korea and reached the second round, previously held stereotypes about Japanese players began to evaporate, leading to a raft of European clubs purchasing players from the J.League. Hidetoshi Nakata, widely considered the nation’s greatest export, had already moved to Italy following the ’98 World Cup, and had established himself as a mercurial midfield talent at Perugia and Roma before Parma splashed out €28.4 million for his services in 2001, while Shinji Ojo had joined Feyenoord in that same summer. In the years that followed, Shunsuke Nakamura, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, and Yuto Nagatomo have all gone on to win trophies in Europe. In the space of ten years, the J.League had gone from Care Home for the Rich and Famous to a breeding ground for exciting young talent.

Amidst all this, the J.League announced its Hundred Year Vision in 1999. The plan not only entailed harnessing local communities in order to build a following for each club, but the ambitious promise of establishing 100 J.League clubs across multiple divisions by the centenary anniversary of the league’s foundation in 2092. A predicted by-product of that exponential growth would see the national team break into the top ten of FIFA’s World Rankings, and eventually lift football’s greatest prize within the same timeframe. Though baby-steps have been taken in international football – Japan were a whisker away from reaching the quarter-finals in Russia – the J.League can now boast 55 teams across three divisions, and are well on course to meet their growth target. Less than a decade ago, however, the prospects for the nation’s professional league system looked grim.

In 2011, a 9.0-9.1 magnitude earthquake erupted off the coast of the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, causing a tsunami to sweep over the Japanese mainland, killing more than ten thousand people in its wake. The earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in the country, and the fourth biggest in the world on record. In the immediate aftermath, over a million building were either damaged or totally collapsed, 4.4 million households were left without electricity,  and three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown, eventually exploding causing a nuclear disaster. Prime Minister Naoto Kan described it as “the most difficult crisis” for Japan since the Second World War. The nation, in a blink of an eye, had been torn to shreds.

Though trivial in the bigger picture, the aftermath of the earthquake had a knock on effect for the J.League. With the country facing an economic crisis and struggling to recover from the sheer weight of the tragedy, trifling pastimes such as football lost their lustre. Attendances fell dramatically, and dwindling interest called for drastic action. In 2012, the league set out its Asian Strategy, with a view to entice football fans from neighbouring countries to buy into their brand. If successful, it would not only save the league itself from an economic crisis, but also encourage tourism and trade for the entire country. A deal struck with Thailand has seen five Thai internationals move to the J.League since 2012 including Chanathip Songkrasin, one of the nations most famous and celebrated players. As a result, interest in Japanese football has risen exponentially in Thailand, and the plan for the league is to branch out further into Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia in the coming years.

“Japanese teams have tended to be less than rigorous in their scouting policies. There are agents in place who practically run the transfer market in Japan, and teams have been unwilling to take risks and have too much trust in those agents. Now, teams appear to be realising that there are other players and alternatives out there.”
Alan Gibson, JSoccer Magazine

After the rebuild following the Tōhoku earthquake, an entirely unexpected threat to the J.League’s profile emerged in China, where the Chinese Super League was beginning to flex its financial muscles thanks to the backing of billionaire businessmen. The earliest signs of interest in the Chinese game came in 2011 with clubs across the country acquiring the services of some of Europe’s top names coming to the end of their careers. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, and Yakubu all flocked to the Far East for the chance of one last big payday, bringing with them increased intrigue in investment opportunities in a sport previously ignored in the country. By 2015, with the foreign player policy relaxed, money began pumping into the CSL at an astonishing rate, fuelling the spending power of China’s top clubs. A year later, a collective spending spree began, with an unprecedented £488m being spent across the league, and the Chinese transfer record being broke four times in twelve months, culminating in Brazilian midfielder Oscar’s £60m move from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG.

Such extravagance was a flame to the moths of inquisitive European football fans, and television audiences for the league grew steadily outside the Asian continent. Though lacking the all-round quality of its Japanese counterpart, the CSL provided casual viewers with familiar faces to support, which in turn boosted broadcast revenue. From sourcing domestic investment, a previously unfancied national league was beginning to garner worldwide attention. The governing body though could see how unsustainable this free-spending attitude would become and moved to discourage clubs to blow their budgets on exotic players from overseas, and in 2017 the Chinese Football Federation introduced a transfer tax that decreed any purchase of over ¥45 million for a foreign player or ¥20 million for a Chinese player would result in a mandatory contribution of the same value to the CFA youth development fund. Needless to say, the spending was quickly reigned in.

“China suddenly had money and offered it to all the mercenaries that would take it. Now that Japan has some money to offer themselves as an alternative, the clubs are now in a position to offer much more. The teams that embrace the DAZN money, and improve scouting networks will be the ones who benefit the most.”
Alan Gibson, JSoccer Magazine

In a moment of serendipity, the J.League received a massive financial boost in the same year as sanctions were placed on transfers in neighbouring China. A ten year, $2bn broadcast contract with British sports media group Perform was announced, with subscription streaming service DAZN winning the rights to broadcast J.League matches from all three divisions across a multitude of platforms. The deal also included a pledge to kit out stadiums in Japan’s top-flight with WiFi, in a bid to enhance the matchday experience for supporters. Not only was the deal groundbreaking in its valuation and progressive attitude to technology, but it also marked the first piece of major foreign investment in the Japanese game since the J.League’s inception. That the Perform Group could see the potential for worldwide interest in Japanese football provided a big confidence boost to clubs, alongside a welcome financial injection. 

No team was quicker to reap the rewards of this investment than Vissel Kobe. Traditionally a mid-table side in the top-flight, Vissel were taken over by Rakuten in 2004, whose president Hiroshi Mikitani hails from the area. Initial attempts to turn the team into title challengers in the J1 were remarkably unsuccessful, and the club have suffered two relegations in the fifteen years since Mikitani took over. The increased financial heft, however, has given the owner a platform to realise his vision, and a month into the first J.League season broadcast on DAZN, Vissel announced the signing of former Germany international striker Lukas Podolski. Whilst big-name players had played in the league since the heyday of the mid-90s, including Freddie Ljungberg and Diego Forlan, few had made much of an impact. For Mikitani, the former Bayern Munich man provided the first piece of the jigsaw to turn Vissel into challengers.

Most clubs kept their powder dry in that first season, perhaps seeing the limited impact that Podolski had at the NOEVIR Stadium as Vissel finished ninth. Nagoya Grampus Eight, no strangers to signing big names, were next to dabble in the veteran market, though the acquisition of Brazilian striker Jô ahead of the 2018 season was a little more underwhelming. His return of 24 goals in his debut season eventually made the difference between Grampus staying up and being relegated, but his presence in the league would be overshadowed by the imports arriving a few months later.

“J.League fans have been excited and welcoming to star names, even when at other clubs. The sellouts that have accompanied Vissel Kobe away games in the hopes of seeing Iniesta, Podolski, and now Villa, have been amazing. Crowds of 10-15,000 have become 25-30,000 at some away matches and the fans are there to see the stars.”
Alan Gibson, JSoccer Magazine

Whether Rakuten’s sponsorship deal with Barcelona, which began in July 2017, had a part to play is unknown, but the arrival of Andrés Iniesta at Vissel Kobe was one of the most talked about transfers across the world. Alan Gibson, founder of JSoccer Magazine, was the first to break the news that Spain’s World Cup winning goalscorer was on his way to Japan, and the playmaker’s presence in the league had an immediate impact. Attendances immediately jumped, with fans flocking from across the country and beyond to see Iniesta in action, and by the end of the 2018 season over 500,000 more supporters had attended games than five years earlier.

Vissel weren’t the only side flexing their newly built financial muscles, with Sagan Tosu tempting Fernando Torres to join his former team-mate in Japan. These star names had little impact on either club’s fortunes – Vissel finished the 2018 season midtable again, while Sagan narrowly avoided relegation – but the increased attention and profile has provided the whole league a vision of what well-placed investment can do for a club. Not to rest on their laurels, Vissel recruited another Spanish legend ahead of the 2019 season, as David Villa swapped New York for Kobe to link up with Iniesta. A winning goal on his home debut against Torres’ Sagan Tosu only further endeared the superstar recruit to Vissel’s supporters.

“Now, with better foreigners coming in, these improved, experienced players can help develop youngsters at individual clubs by passing on their experience and talent. If the better players keep coming, and are of the mindset that they are here as team players, not then the level of the game will improve in Japan.”
Alan Gibson, JSoccer Magazine

Now the J.League must walk the fine line between becoming a novelty retirement league for ageing European stars, and using these big names to encourage younger players from overseas to join and complement homegrown talent. The Chinese Soccer League’s fixation on glamour proved to be shortsighted, while the Major Soccer League in the United States is now beginning to move away from offering big contracts to busted flushes, and focusing on importing promising young players from South America and selling them on for a profit. Vissel’s signing of Sergi Samper, the highly-rated Barcelona midfielder, suggests they’re not about to go down the Chinese route, and this newly-established attitude towards embracing players from overseas could prove the making of the league.

Thanks to Alan Gibson from JSoccer Magazine for providing the insight to this piece. You can read more about the J.League at the JSoccer website, or follow them on Twitter


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