Asian Debate: Is Japan Becoming Asia's Leader?

“Japan would prefer to be in UEFA rather than in the AFC,” a journalist from China remarked earlier this year in Beijing just prior to the East Asian Football Championship.

He was only partly joking. On the eastern edge of the giant continent, Japan has often preferred to judge itself against nations elsewhere in the world than against Asian competitors. Games against nearest neighbours South Korea, North Korea and China are fierce affairs but often over-laden with history - Japanese players rarely enjoy them.  

If we move a little further west past the Korean peninsula and China deeper into the world’s largest continent then J-League fans, players and coaches lose interest. Only recently have teams from Japan started to get excited about the Asian Champions League. For a long time distances travelled, destinations reached and teams played contributed to a feeling that the continental competition was more trouble than it was worth.  

It is perhaps slightly ironic then that more than any other, it is the J-League which is looking to provide leadership to Asian football and not just on the pitch where it boasts the Asian champions and three of the eight quarter-finalists for the 2008 Champions League but off the field too.  The domestic competition has been seen as the model for others to follow in recent years in terms of marketing, organisation and infrastructure. The league is not quite the utopia that is sometimes painted out to be but there is little doubt it is the best around and is the Asian league that has potential to break out of the continental scene and become a major world player.

That is certainly the plan of new Japanese FA president Motoaki Inukai who is hoping to use Asia as a springboard for expansion as he outlined the J-league’s plan to allow teams to have an ‘Asian berth’. This plan will allow teams to field one player from AFC member associations apart from their usual foreign quota of three.

"We are aiming to give opportunities to players from other Asian countries and think this could be an advantage for the Japanese clubs in the AFC Professional League starting next year," he said. "We will try to be a model and leading member association of Asia in all aspects including standard of football, spectators, development and administration," he said.

"I would like to urge the Asian fans to cheer our teams and players so that they can compete with European or South American teams," he concluded.

It is a good plan though not a new one. It has been mentioned among Japanese football officials for a few years as it has in South Korea, and to a much lesser extent China. Last year Incheon United called for the same, and the K-League promised to ‘put it on the agenda’. Yet again however, the J-League is willing to act while the K-league, Asia’s oldest and most successful, delays. At the moment, China isn’t even in the equation as yet again; Chinese Football Association officials are unable to decide on anything at all.

While West Asian football dances to a completely different beat in terms of football culture, climate and finance, South and South East Asia are keen to see some leadership provided by one of the big boys from the east.

Inukai is a man of action, he has demonstrated that over the years with Urawa Reds, but announcing plans for an Asian berth will be easier than persuading clubs to actually fill it. Ill-informed prejudice towards players from South and South-east Asia is rife among coaches and clubs in East Asia. Conversations on the subject with coaches in Korea, China and Japan usually don’t go much further than the oft-repeated stereotypes of lazy attitudes and small physiques.

Off the pitch it isn’t much better. English Premier League clubs may have been falling over themselves to develop links with Indian clubs but attempts by I-league teams (as well as some in Indonesia) to build partnerships/arrange friendly games with Japanese and Korean teams have been ignored or refused.

The fear in South Korea, the only Asian nation that actually provides players to the J-league at the moment, is that this berth will not be filled at all by Indians or Indonesians but by Koreans is understandable. There isn’t a huge gap between salaries at the top end of leagues K and J but it is does exist and the Land of the Rising Sun has long been a successful playground for the top stars from The Land of the Morning Calm.

K-Leaguers are welcomed in Japan, adapt quickly and rarely fail. That is probably why there is also a proposal in Tokyo that would allow teams to field an unlimited number of players from East Asian countries. Such a plan did not meet with favourable reactions in Seoul or Beijing.

But those two capitals are once again doing little more than talking while the J-League is already moving onwards and upwards.

John Duerden

Asia Editor