HomeSportsFootballThe rise of Japanese Samurai in Football | A detailed case study
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The rise of Japanese Samurai in Football | A detailed case study

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Japan had an incredible 2022 FIFA World Cup and the team impressed everyone throughout the tournament with their breathtaking performances. In the group of death containing Germany and Spain, they not only beat both nations but also topped the group. In both their games, they came from a goal behind to beat the World Cup winners. They were clinical with their performances and were technically at the top of their game. The Japanese football team is a well-organized unit and is extremely calm under pressure. They are tight in their defense and when they get an opening, they threaten to counter-attack, running through the opposition midfield and in a flash entering the opposition’s penalty box.

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These performances might have felt surprising to many, but the development of Japanese Football had sown seed many years back. Japanese football culture started in 1993, and slow and patient growth has finally developed a system of excellence. This was possible due to growth from the grassroots levels, a robust ecosystem, and a clear vision.

Plans till 2050

Image Source- FIFA

Japan is traditionally famous for baseball and sumo wrestling. Football was far from popular in Japan. Japan Football Association had the vision to make Japan a football powerhouse. In 2005, JFA announced a 50-year plan for improving the sport in the country. 

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The main objective of the ‘JFA Declaration 2005’ was to expand the reach of football in Japan and follow process-based methodologies to win big tournaments. 

Till 2015, JFA had the vision to bring 5 million fans together to support their national football team. In 2050, the fan following should reach up to 10 million and Japan also aims to win the FIFA World Cup by 2050. According to Statista, the annual attendance of JLeague grew from 4.83 million (2011) to 6.35 million (2019). Now it shares the number 1 spot along with baseball to be the most popular sport in the country. 

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Zico effect

In the 1990s, former Brazilian player Zico became the coach of Japan. Zico undertook the reigns as he saw a willingness to learn from the Japanese players. After every match, Zico made all the players take notes using pen and paper about what went wrong in the match and made them analyze their game. Before every match, the players revised their notes so that they could not repeat the same mistakes in the upcoming game. 

Zico wanted players to feel sad about the loss and never wanted the players to take defeats lightly. As Zico was not able to speak Japanese, he hired a translator. He insisted that the translator yells at the players with the same emotions as he did.

Thirty years from now, Japanese players are extremely passionate about football and keep fighting till the last whistle is blown. The culture that Zico built in the team is having fruit after 30 long years. 

Improvement in J-League

Image Source- Anadolu Agency

30 years ago, the J-League was formed with a vision to compete with top European Leagues around the world. Back then, the league had only 10 teams. Today due to astute planning, the teams have increased from 10 to 60 and are played across three divisions. J1 is the top division consisting of 18 teams, J2 with 22, and J3 with 18 teams respectively.

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This helped in increasing the players’ pool. Training programs were taken, and various projects were taken to improve the quality of coaching in the country. Hajime Moriyasu is a by-product of the coach development program. Emphasis was given on ball controlling and being technically strong then worrying about tactics. 

Experts instilled a mentality whereby children were first taught to perfect ball control and then worry about tactics. One such expert is American coach Tom Byer, who is credited for changing Japan’s young coaching framework.

Speed was always an advantage for Japanese players. Speed coupled with strong technical skills and control over the ball meant that Japan became a real force to reckon with. Japan became the best team in Asia winning the continental championship four times between 1992 and 2011.

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Influence of European Leagues

In the ongoing FIFA World Cup, 19 out of the 26 players in the squad play in the European League. Japan has five players in England, 31 playing in Spanish League La Liga, 54 in Germany with 10 in Bundesliga, 7 in France, and four in Eredivise, the top League in the Netherlands. 

After the foundation of the J-League, Japan focused on making the players ready to play in different leagues across the world, especially in Europe. It was also beneficial for the European clubs as they could buy the players at particularly low money and sell them at high rates thus making huge profits. 

This meant that Japan got exposure on a wider scale and could compete with the best players in the World. The quality of the European League is superior to the J-League. This helped in the overall development of Japanese football as players would be required to be at the top of their game and always improve their skills. 

Project DNA

In 2016, Japan undertook a project and declared that they wanted to become the biggest exporter of footballers to the world by 2030. They called this Project DNA- ‘Developing Natural Abilities’.

When Japanese football officials visited Europe six years ago to gather information, they partnered with organizations that had the greatest academies (like West Ham United) rather than the biggest clubs, who could provide their name recognition. 

Improvement at the grassroots level

Each club in the J-League has its academy. Some players start youth programs at the under-12 level and some at the under-15 level, but it is common for clubs in J-league 1 and 2 to have full-fledged teams from the under-16 level. The youngest national team is under 15 and there are five more age groups for each succeeding year till the Olympic team which is under-1 side.

Japan is certainly on its way toward its 2050 vision. They are extremely talented and passionate about playing football and are unfazed by any opponent they face. With time and experience, they will get better and light up the Football world in the coming years.

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