With Japan's friendly against Iceland the beginning of the Japanese football year, Goal.com contributor and long-term resident Cesare Polenghi reveals why you too should be a fan
by Cesare Polenghi
As we enter the 20th year of J.League, it is time for me to fulfill a promise I made a few months ago and to examine the reasons why Japanese football has become one of the most entertaining on the planet.
I was born in Italy, have worked and lived in France, the UK and Germany amongst other places. Having experienced football in all these countries, it might be surprising for you to hear that I consider Japanese football the best in the world. So, please, let me explain to you why.
|1. EXCELLENT TECHNIQUE
A few months ago when I asked Wesley Sneijder about Japanese players, he told me he was impressed at their dedication at practice and skill with the ball. The Dutchman was completely right. Since the 1970s, when the Japanese were obsessed with imitating the Brazilian game, players have been taught to work with the ball from a very young age.
|Since the 1970s, when the Japanese were obsessed with imitating the Brazilian game, players have been taught to work with the ball from a very young age|
After a few decades, the results can be seen by all: Japanese footballers display sublime technique that more often than not results in very entertaining games, whether they are at the international level or between high schools. The lesson from the South American masters has metabolised; it is arguable that no European League can rival Japan for individual technique.
|2. GREAT ATMOSPHERE
Rather than reenacting civil war, supporter rivalries in Japan are often very light-hearted. Stadiums in Japan are colourful, entertaining, pleasant and safe environments where one can enjoy football with friends and family without the risk of being attacked for wearing the "wrong" colors.
|The stands of a J.League stadium represent all of Japanese society: one can enjoy matches with families, students, drunk businessmen and utterly dedicated pensioners
The stands of a J.League stadium represent all of Japanese society: one can enjoy matches with families, students, drunk businessmen and dedicated pensioners. People go to the game to have fun, not to vent their frustrations. Few can deny that a J.League game is a uniquely enjoyable football experience.
|3. DAYS OF SUMMER
As I froze at a high school game last month, I laughed as I recalled the proposed notion of aligning the J.League calendar with that of European football. If anything, it is the Europeans who must realise that despite the heat, a match played in mid-summer is much more enjoyable that one played on a miserably cold winter day.
|Europeans must realise that despite the heat, a match played in mid-summer is much more enjoyable that one played on a miserably cold winter day|
The month of August in particular, with students out of school, packed stadiums and a cluster of game over a few weeks, is one of the happiest periods of the year for any football lover in Japan. All that's needed is some good friends, a beer, some edamame, and a ticket. Doesn't everybody love the summer atmosphere of the World Cup? In J-League, that atmosphere is present every year.
|4. AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD
Who is going to win the championship next year? Although most J-League fans have their own preferences, the truth is that we have no idea. This is because Japanese football, even without a draft or salary cap, has managed to keep a balance within its clubs, resulting in unpredictable championships that are fought to the very end.
|Japanese football, even without a draft or salary cap, has managed to keep a balance within its clubs, resulting in unpredictable championships|
Even in spite of Kashima Antlers' historical three titles from 2007 through 2009, there have been seven different champions in the last ten years, with many teams not able to lift the J.League shield until the season finale. Where else could you get a newly promoted team such as last year's Kashiwa Reysol jumping into the top division, before winning it by playing beautiful football? In Europe, it appears only Germany has such a balanced league.
|5. SUPPORT FOR SAMURAI BLUE
In Italy, where I grew up, many do not support the azzurri anymore, as they say they "can't support players from a rival club." In England, we hear a lot of ugly off-the-field stories, and most supporters seem very frustrated with their national team. France have (or at least used to have) a national team divided into clans.
It is no surprise that the Samurai Blue outperformed those three teams in South Africa. Part of that is surely due to the fact that the Japanese stand united behind their national team, and see it as the embodiment of the best traditional values of their country: adeptness, hard work and honour.
|The Japanese stand united behind their national team, and see it as the embodiment of the best traditional values of their country: adeptness, hard work and honour|
Support is unconditional. I will never forget Alberto Zaccheroni's face when he walked on the pitch in Saitama for his first game as a manager of Japan in 2010. Even for a foreigner it is hard not to fall in love with the Samurai Blue, and being part of this football family, may that be as national team manager, as a journalist or simply as a supporter, is a privilege and a joy.