The new football season is underway, and once again a couple of half-decent results against flimsy opposition are reviving hopes that a J-League side might finally progress in the AFC Champions League. Is this optimism misplaced? It’s something of an anomaly that, since the competition’s inception in 2002, Japan’s national league has yet to be represented in the latter stages. Why is it that, given the relative strength and wealth of the J League, its teams have fared so poorly?
While a few wags have deemed that the J League is simply inferior to its competitors, the argument doesn’t carry much weight. True, the likes of Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia have wealth to throw at a few half-hearted, fading stars seeking a pension fund (Gabriel Batistuta and Romario, to name but a few recent examples). But the J League shouldn’t be found wanting against its East Asian counterparts.
Perhaps the style of play is exposed at international level? Well, South Korea have undoubtedly fared better at the previous two World Cups. But don’t forget that Japan are the reigning Asian Champions, having retained the trophy in China in 2004, despite the hostile reception they received from their hosts.
Could it be that Japanese teams are suffering from the flight of their leading talents to Europe? After all, just this season, national team members Alex Santos and, more comically, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (a player with a Beckham-esque fame-to-talent ratio) have moved to Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg. However, Europe has an equal gravitational pull on the other Asian leagues. South Korea, for instance, are now well represented in England’s Premier League through Park Ji Sung and Lee Young-Pyo. Moreover, the J League has greater pulling power to offset this exodus of talent. Last season’s top scorer, Washington, has played for Brazil, and the unpredictable Costa Rican Paolo Wanchope – FC Tokyo’s close season signing – scored twice against Germany in the 2006 World Cup.
The answer is probably a combination of factors. Firstly, the national side’s problem of profligacy is replicated at this level. Urawa had just three goals and 26 shots to show for their total domination against Indonesia’s Persik Kediri last month. Secondly, there might be something in the charge that clubs – and the public – aren’t taking the tournament seriously. The 31,303 people who attended Urawa’s first match of the championship at Saitama Stadium represent a decent attendance figure, but well down on the team’s J League opener four days earlier. Arduous away journeys, hostile crowds and the number of games played in Japan can also be factors. Whatever the problem, it was not always thus: Jubilo Iwata regularly reached the final of the competition’s predecessor in the late 90s.
One thing is for sure: a representative from Japan would certainly enliven the inevitable procession that is the FIFA World Club Championship. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has committed to the club World Cup, which is contested between the champions of each continent, being held in Japan, but nobody can deny that they are waiting for the inevitable Europe v South America face-off in the final. So can you imagine how much more interest there would be in an Urawa v Barcelona semi-final? The crowds, though already respectable, would rocket.
So to give this nascent tournament some meaning, perhaps we should be hoping that this season isn’t another false dawn.