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How the J. League changed football in the Land of the Rising Sun

This the final part of The Terrace's three-part series on Japanese football, casting a nostalgic and admiring eye over how the country has developed the sport, chronicling the nineties, noughties, and whatever godforsaken name they come up with for a decade that gave us Trump and Brexit. In this part, we take a look at 2010 onwards.

Part さん: The 2010s

After firmly establishing himself as a club legend over the course of a seven-year career at Nagoya Grampus Eight, Dragan Stojkovic returned to the club as manager in 2008. Nowhere but at Red Star is the former Yugoslavian international as loved, and both have equal reason for their unadulterated adoration. Over four seasons at Zvezda, Stojkovic scored 54 league goals in 120 appearances; then, in 2005, he returned as club president and in an 18-month stint guided them to a domestic double. The love was reciprocated, too. In the 1991 European Cup final, he lined up for Olympique de Marseille, having moved to the free-spending French side the previous summer. With the game heading to penalties, Raymond Goethals brought on the penalty-specialist in anticipation, just for his player to refuse to take one against his old club. Red Star won the shootout. Later in his career, his service to the club, during which he won two Yugoslavian Player of the Year awards, was officially recognised and he was anointed a Star of the Red Star.

In 2008, he returned to Grampus. So impressive was his reign - and knowing Stajkovic as a player and a close friend - Arsene Wenger declared him as his choice for his eventual successor at Arsenal. The first two years in the dugout were mixed. In the first season, he guided them to a third place finish - the highest since his time as a player under Wenger in which they finished 2nd in 1996 - but in the second, Grampus finished in a more familiar position of 9th. Despite the six-place fall from the previous year, there were signs of overall improvement, as they finished runners-up in the Emperor's Cup and reached the semi-final of the AFC Champions League.

As a new decade began, Stajkovic blossomed in all his glory. Buoyed by the 2009 signing of the 6'4 Australian international striker Joshua Kennedy, Grampus won the league by ten points. It was their first J. League title. Kennedy took home the Golden Boot with 17 goals, and for the first time since Stojkovic won the award himself in 1995, the J. League Player of the Year went to a Grampus player: Seigo Narazaki. At the age of 34, Narazaki, who retired from international football the same year after 77 caps, became the first - and to date, only - goalkeeper to win the award. Expectedly, he was named in the League's Team of the Season, along with teammates Joshua Kennedy, Danilsor Cordoba, Marcus Tulio Tanaka, and Takahiro Masukawa. Orchestrating all of this, Stajkovic was named the J. League Manager of the Year, the second Grampus boss to do so. Wenger was the other, of course. That summer, four of his players went to the 2010 World Cup: Narazaki, Keiji Tamada, Tanaka (all Japan), and Kennedy.

In South Africa, Japan were blessed with a mixture of seasoned experience and some establishing European names. The Samurai Blue had seven players with 70 caps or more, including evergreens Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura, and fledgling stars Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki, and Keisuke Honda. They advanced through Group E with wins over Cameroon and Denmark either side of a 1-0 loss to eventual runners-up the Netherlands, and were drawn against Gerardo Martino's Paraguay in the round of 16. Japan were an inspiring outfit at the tournament, and matched their best finish of 9th, but were beaten on penalties by the South American side, who scored all five of their penalties.

Four years later, Japan's side were far less remarkable and crashed out with just one point. It was their worst finish since their debut appearance 16 years earlier, and interestingly the majority of their 23-man squad plied their trade outside of Japan. Twelve of the 2014 side were playing in Europe at the time of the competition, compared to just four at the last World Cup, and six at the one before that. An increase of exports didn't seem to correlate to an increase in national team performance. That was until 2018.

In Russia, Japan's national team had never been so diverse in its reach. It had players playing in England, France, Spain, Mexico, and Germany, for example, as well as in the homeland. Fifteen players were this time earning a living outside of the J. League, and in the Round of 16 game against Belgium, ten of their starting XI were playing abroad. To the shock of all, they took a 2-0 lead over one of the tournament favourites and it looked as if a quarter-final place against Brazil beckoned. Unfortunately, The Red Devils' unrelenting attacks were eventually too hard to resist, and in the 94th minute, Belgium broke rapidly from a Japan attack and Marouane Fellaini finished the move. A 3-2 defeat meant they would not eclipse their best World Cup finish, but it had provided arguably their best performance.

Back on the domestic scene, Stojkovic's time in charge at Grampus came to an end in December 2013. His record stood at a win ratio 50.49 % - the best at the club since the turn of the century - their first and only J. League title, and the 2011 Japanese Super Cup. Grampus had their hero and he had cemented his legacy for the second time. In 2015, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun 4th Class, Gold Rays with Rosette. It is the oldest national decoration in Japan and the highest of those given to ordinary citizens. Given for long and meritorious civil or military service, receiving it was confirmation of the positive effect Dragan Stojkovic had had on Japanese football and there is perhaps no other foreigner whose impact was as great.


The last decade was again not as decorated as the inaugural ten years, in terms of attracting illustrious names to the league. Although Brazil remained the most represented foreign country in the league - South Korea second - the quality was not what it once was. The most well-known names from the South American continent have been former Manchester City and CSKA Moscow striker Jo, and ex-wonderkid Kerlon. Last season, Jo was the J. League top scorer with 24 goals and hit two hat-tricks over the course of the season. It was a return to form that has rarely been seen since he left Russia for England. Kerlon, on the other hand, peaked with Fujieda MYFC, who at the time were playing in the Japan Football League - the tier below the J.2 League - in essence, the de facto third tier. He spent two fruitful seasons there, but knee injuries forced him back to Brazil once more.

Elsewhere, Freddie Ljungberg ended his professional career in Japan, Victor Ibarbo attempted to kickstart his there, Diego Forlan gave it ago, and Jay Bothroyd thrived. The England one-cap wonder signed for Jubilo Iwata in 2015 and scored 35 times in 56 games across a two-season spell that saw the club promoted from J.2 with Bothroyd as the league's top scorer, before securing safety in J1 the following year. By then, the league format had convoluted itself once more, returning to a two-stage set-up and a final championship play-off to decide the ultimate winner. It ridiculously resulted in third place Kashima Antlers, who finished on 59 points, beating Urawa Red Diamonds, who finished top of the league with 74 points, in a championship stage final to thus win the league. To add insult to injury, not only did a team with 15 points fewer snatch the title from the top ranked side, but they beat them on away goals - and thanks to a 74h minute second leg penalty - after a 2-2 draw. In a twist of fate, they went on to finish runners-up at the FIFA Club World Cup that year, thanks to winning the J1 League. They remain the competition's most successful side with eight titles and are the current AFC s League holders, beating Iran's Perepolis 2-0 in the 2018 final. It is the trophy's second consecutive year in Japan, after Urawa Red Diamonds won it in 2017.

While the exports and the quality of them have increased - in turn, slowly but surely, improving the national team - the dilution in the standard of imports has been visible. In some cases, this has extracted some strong ill-feeling. In 2014, at the start of the new season, a banner was hung at one of the stand entrances at Urawa's Saitama Stadium, which read ‘JAPANESE ONLY.' The club were duly punished for the racist behaviour and were forced to play an upcoming fixture behind closed doors. The saddest part of the event was that the club had just one foreign player as it was, Marcio Richardes, a 33-year old attacking midfielder who had joined the club three years prior. He retired at the end of the season. Ironically, when they won the 2017 AFC Champions League final, they had just one foreigner in their starting XI - Brazilian winger Rafael Silva. They won both legs 1-0. Both goals were scored by their Silva. He spent just one season at the club, scoring 9 goals in 11 AFC Champions League matches.

The decade ended with a return to some big-name signings, albeit at the very end of their careers. Over the past two years, Vissel Kobe have amassed World Cup winners Lukas Podolski, Andre Iniesta, and David Villa, and Sagan Tosu acquired World Cup winner Fernando Torres. Neither teams have found their star signings to have rocketed them up the league, though. Vissel Kobe are 13th in a league of 18 and have 14 points, just one off of the bottom, with all five clubs below them on 13. Podolski has two goals in eight games and Villa has 6 in 12, leaving him 5th in the race for the Golden Boot. They still only account for 8 of their 20 goals, however. The pull of Iniesta and Villa was enough for Sergi Samper to end an 18-year relationship with Barcelona last season, when he cancelled his contract and signed with the Japanese club. Torres' Sagan Tosu are one of those teams on 13 points and the striker is yet to score in eight appearances this season.

Ultimately, the J. League has satisfied its founding aims. Japan's international record since professionalization is an unquestionable improvement. From having never made an appearance at a World Cup to making every one since the move, with three Last 16 appearances, twice being extremely unlucky not to make the quarter finals. Next week, Japan are participating in the Copa America as one of two guest teams, for the first time in 20 years. Having lost the Asian Cup final to hosts Qatar earlier this year, it will be a strong test of their resilience after 12 months of close encounters with success.

Domestically, the game continues its upward trajectory, winning the last two AFC Champions League trophies, becoming less reliant on imports, and providing the world of football with some of its greatest players (in 2004, Hidetoshi Nakata was named in the FIFA 100, the top 100 living players, as picked by Pele). Likewise, the profile of the game has undeniably been raised since the league's inception. Aided by Japanese players' successes in Europe's top five leagues, it is now as common to see a Japanese person sporting a football shirt in London as it is Tokyo, Paris, or Madrid. Their fans' interests have become global and thus it has become a marketing strategy of clubs to build their brand in Japan. It will be interesting to see if and when - what I think - the next logical step in the progression would be: a Japanese owner of a major European club.

by Jordan Florit - @TheFalseLibero



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