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USA, Japan: Soccer bedfellows - Part 1

Kashiwa Reysol supporters make a giant mosaic before a J. League match against Cerezo Osaka.
SpecialtoFoxSoccer JOHN DUERDEN
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How many women - and let’s be honest it usually is women - say they know two people who are perfect for each other if only they could somehow be in the same place at the same time? If FIFA were to host a dinner party, then the United States and Japan have enough in common to get a good conversation started and enough differences to make keep it interesting. They really should spend time getting to know each other better.

For the world’s international-minded fans, MLS and the J. League have established themselves as two of the best, if not the best, outside Europe. Top flight games in Japan attracted an average close to 20,000 in 2010 while in the USA, during the 2011 regular season, saw figures reach 18,000. With world-class stadia, regular appearances at the World Cup (and its latter stages) and players active in Europe, the future looks bright for both.

The notoriously large Urawa Red Diamonds crowd cheers their team during November 19th's match against Vegalta Sendai. (Getty Images: Hiroki Watanabe/Getty Images")

Afshin Ghotbi is a well-known figure in the California soccer scene and was a member of the USA’s coaching staff at the 1998 World Cup. He is now the head coach at J. League club Shimizu S-Pulse.

“Both leagues are closing on two decades of history and they are now challenging established sports such as baseball,” Ghotbi told FOXSoccer.com.

Japan doesn’t operate in the highly competitive marketplace that the MLS finds itself, with soccer receiving massive media coverage, especially when it comes to the national team. Only baseball is a serious rival in Japan, though soccer has already caught (or almost caught) a game which started its first professional league way back in 1936. Despite baseball's 56-year head start, you are just as likely to see kids swinging a foot as a bat in Tokyo these days.

As it showed in the aftermath of March's earthquake and tsunami, soccer is more in tune with the country than its more established and slightly staid rival. The J. League quickly suspended the season for six weeks, leaving players free for some serious fund-raising and, at times, debris-clearing between rounds one and two. The quick decision to put the league on the backburner was widely appreciated by the media and the nation at large in contrast to baseball, which initially wanted to start as normal at the end of March before falling in with football's footsteps.

Trackback: Short history of the J. League

1992 - J. League founded with 10 original members

1993 - J. League begins inaugural season, eventually won by Verdy Kawasaki, who won the first two J. League titles (Verdy Kawasaki currently exist as Tokyo Verdy).

1997 - J. League attendance averages 10,131 per game, down from the 1994 high of 19,568 as the league adds eight teams over a four-year period from 1994 to 1998.

1999 - J. League moves to a two-division, relegation system, incorporating nine semi-pro clubs to from J2. League also moves away from tiebreaking mechanisms (penalty shootouts for regular season games were eliminated before the 1999 season).

2004 - League moves away from split-season format.

2005 - League expands to 18 clubs.

2008 - Gamba Osaka wins Asian Champions League, the second consecutive season a J. League team wins the confederation club title.

J. League's immediate impact

If soccer is cooler and more in tune with the nation than baseball, there wasn’t much hip about the game in the Land of the Rising Sun before 1993, when the J. League was launched. Until then, soccer consisted of companies such as Hitachi and Mitsubishi fielding teams watched by handfuls of half-interested employees. With rivals South Korea 10 years into its pro-league (the oldest in Asia) and starting to appear regularly at World Cups, Japan wanted to do something similar.

It opened in a blaze of publicity. The media went mad for all things ‘J.' So did the fans. 300,000 people applied for tickets for the opening game between Yokohama Marinos and Verdy Kawasaki. Each team was allowed three foreign stars, with Japan mindful of the NASL experience : lots of big-names concentrated in a small number of teams.

Some of the biggest names in the early 90s were tempted to East Asia. Zico was credited with helping the locals to take pride in their performances - to always be professional and never give up - while Dunga has the reputation of schooling Japanese players in the darker, more pragmatic arts of football. Gary Lineker hardly played while Dragan Stojkovic is still there. After thrilling fans with his wonderful skills, the Serbian suited-up to lead Nagoya Grampus to the 2010 J. League title.

Too much, too soon

Around the same time a bid was launched for the World Cup. By the time the news came through that it would be shared with Korea, however, the boom was well and truly over.

Tom Byer is an American who has worked in Japanese football for two decades: first as a player and then as a coach who has worked with over 500,000 children, including a 10-year-old Shinji Kagawa. He remembers the dip very well.

“When the J. League first started there were 10 teams,” said the son of a New York City cop now in demand all over Asia and beyond for his experience and knowhow when it comes to coaching kids. Eight more were added in the four years from 1994. “The quality of the players and media interest dropped. In 1995, there were 6.1 million fans but the year after, the number had fallen to 3.2 million. Then came 1998. The national team qualified for World Cup and that helped attendances and interest.”

Also in 1999, the J2 was established with 10 teams, meaning automatic relegation battles would add to the excitement. The 2002 World Cup was on the horizon and the JFA’s Hundred Year Vision, one that aims to put the nation at the top table of the world’s elite by any yardstick you would care to name by the end of the 21st century, was announced. Once again, momentum was moving in the right direction.

Teams like Urawa Reds emerged. In a new 60,000 state-of the-art World Cup Stadium, the Reds were soon filling it on a regular basis. The club quickly became a vital part of the local community in the fairly non-descript suburb of Tokyo, its success leading to renown across Asia, the club regularly receiving visitors hoping to learn how it is done. Even with the team falling on relatively hard time (it is currently fighting relegation), Urawa still attract around 40,000 to each game.

It helped that the league was also becoming increasingly entertaining. The turning point was 2005. It was the first season without the split season play-off system, when the team that won the first half of the season met the team that won the second in an end of season match-up. The new format would be recognizable to any European - finish first and take the trophy. Any nerves as to whether one team would run away with the league and render the rest almost meaningless soon disappeared as one of the most thrilling title races in the history of football (not just in Japan) started to take shape.

Five teams entered the last day of the season separated by a single point. Cerezo Osaka led until the final minute when a conceded goal meant a fifth, rather than first, placed finish. To make matters worse, city rivals Gamba stepped in to take its first title. One side of Osaka had a Saturday night to end all nights, while the other - well, let’s just say that even relegation the following season wasn’t as traumatic as December day.

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