Japan were the first team to qualify for Brazil 2014, apart from the hosts of course. Reaching the World Cup finals is becoming a regular occurrence for Japan, it will be the fifth consecutive tournament they have taken part in, underlining that they are one of Asia’s top football nations.
Japan’s love of the game was boosted by their co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup, so much so that they want to do it again. With the world looking for an excuse to take the 2022 games away from Qatar, Japan have voiced their interest in stepping-in to provide a more palatable environment. Tokyo will be the venue for the 2020 Olympics, so there is some logic in another double-whammy of the type that will benefit Brazil this year and in 2016.
But Japanese football, which on TV looks like a cross between Disneyland and a Baseball audience, is not without its problems. Only recently, at Urawa Red Diamonds in Saitama, a banner was unfurled declaring that “Japanese only” fans were welcome at the stadium. This shocked Japan’s football authorities to the point where they forced Urawa to play their next home game behind closed doors. The banner was meant to discourage foreign fans from sitting in certain areas of the stadium. Urawa, rather naively, felt it was not racist in any way.
Racism and Urawa are no strangers, however. In 2010, the club was fined USD 50,000 after their fans hurled insults at foreign players on the opposing team.
And like many other countries, Japan now has a possible match-fixing scandal to contend with. When Sanfrecce Hiroshima, J-League champions for the past two seasons, recently met Kawasaki Frontale, unusual betting patterns were discovered. Like the racism, the J-League thought it was immune to such toxic influences.
It is especially important that Japan does not gain a reputation for racism at a time when the J-League is looking ambitiously beyond its shores. It has also become a destination for players eager to pick-up a big pay-day before they retire. Diego Forlan, one of the star players of the last World Cup, is the latest big name to fly east. He joined Cerezo Osaka after a long career with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Japanese clubs don’t just have their eyes on veteran talent, though, as they look to broaden their fan base beyond the Land of the Rising Sun.
The J-League is also looking to acquire pan-Asian appeal, notably in South East Asia, where the top Japanese clubs have started to trawl for new players. They are calling it “The Asia Project” and it includes a partnership with the Indonesian Federation.
With this in mind, there are high hopes that the performance of Indonesian forward Irfan Bachdim at Ventforet Kofu will be the first big success of the scheme. The last player to be touted as the poster-child for Project Asia was Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh, but he left his club, Consadole Sapporo, because he was homesick.
Crowd issues and corruption may strike at the heart of the Japanese game, but as more people get interested, they are also symptoms of a sport in expansionist mode. It’s unlikely that Tokyo, Yokohama and Hiroshima will experience the sort of crowd problems that have plagued Europe for decades, but they would be wise to ensure that banners that echo the spirit of Apartheid are not wanted. The Japanese have faced, and overcome, far more daunting tasks.