The J1 League. To many, it is seen as yet another alternative destination for ageing footballers to collect a final pay check before an inevitable retirement - and it is easy to see why, in fairness. The current spike in high-profile players leaving ‘the big leagues’ for the MLS and CSL has meant that for the likes of Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres, their summer relocations were dismissed by much of the footballing world for having only one thing in mind - their bank balances.
But in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because what Iniesta and Torres are joining, and very much becoming the faces of, is one of the most unpredictable, intriguing and downright ludicrous footballing competitions this world has to offer. It is a rapidly developing league, embedded in a country that is succumbing to a serious bout of football fever, which is only going to grow in terms of popularity and in quality.
The J1 League (or J.League at the time) was founded in 1992. It was the first time that Japan had ever seen professional football, though the nation’s unique love for the game had been ignited long before then. When the Japanese national team won a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics, it kick-started a boom which saw supporters flock, in record numbers, to football matches up and down the country. This new-found obsession continued all the way through the 1970s, until in the 1980s, the when league began to deteriorate. The depleted stadia began to reflect the standard of football being played inside them, supporters were scarce, and the Japanese national team was lagging significantly behind their Asian neighbours.
The professional J1 League then, aimed to rectify all of those problems. At first, it included 10 clubs, though this was soon expanded to 18 after officials announced the ‘J.League Hundred Year Vision’, just before the turn of the century. It explained the league’s aim of having 100 association football clubs in the nation of Japan, in time for the 100th season in 2092. The project encouraged the clubs to promote football-based health and leisure activities, attract local sponsorships and develop the sport at grass-roots level.
The notion, as was hoped, created a real bond between the teams and the communities around them. The clubs relied on the locals, instead of larger national sponsors, as was (and still is) the case in most other leagues. The supporters then repaid them for their trust by attending matches in their masses, which saw some clubs boast average attendances of well over 20,000 loyal fans by the mid-to-late 1990s.
But it was what happened once the fans arrived inside the stadium, that is most fascinating. With no real reference point on how to support their chosen teams, Japanese fans looked abroad for their inspiration. Some clubs, FC Tokyo in particular, clearly turned to their English counterparts, as they now sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before every home match. Others, such as Shimizu S-Pulse, adopted a more South-American style, resulting in fans creating a Brazilian-esque samba atmosphere, equipped with drums, brass instruments, and the like.
All of the different approaches has resulted in J League matches regularly being played in cacophonous atmospheres. Fans will bounce and chant for the entire 90 minutes, performing tifos and mosaics that wouldn’t look out of place on the Curve Sud of Italy. They have adopted all of the best things from fan cultures worldwide - but admirably, left out all of the worst.
J1 League matches are played in good taste, with very little confrontation and violence between rival supporters. They are safe places to be, which is reflected by the fact that last season, women made up 55% of the total attendances - compared to just 26% in the Premier League. Japanese fans are, I suppose, model supporters. Dedicated, passionate and very noisy, but above all else, just very happy to be there. It was those very supporters, after all, that stayed long after the final whistle had blown, to collect the rubbish left in their section after every single one of their Japan’s matches at last summer’s Russian World Cup.
After a rocky start to life as Japan’s premier footballing competition then, which saw the league battle through the Japanese economic crisis of the mid 1990s, add several teams and change its entire format on more than one occasion, the J1 League has finally settled and is really starting to thrive. The mere fact that just 26 years after its conception, the league is able to acquire the likes of Iniesta, Torres and Lukas Podolski is testament to how well it has developed in such a short period of time - but it is nothing new. Japanese football has been attracting superstars to its shores from day one.
Gary Lineker, Zico, Dunga, Freddie Ljungberg, Hristo Stoichkov, Diego Forlan and Michael Laudrup (who actually played in the J2 League) all spent time applying their trade in Japan. And whilst those players did so towards the end of their career, make no mistake, J League football is no retirement home. Many talents have been nurtured by Japanese football during its infancy: namely Hulk, Park Ji-Sung and now Sergi Samper, but perhaps most famously, a young Arsene Wenger opted to hone his management skills in Japan, for Nagoya Grampus.
It is easy to see what attracts a player to playing in the J Leagues, but even easier to see why the division is establishing such a global viewership - it is nothing short of absolutely crazy. Because the teams are so evenly matched in terms of quality, it means that there are never any outright favourites to lift the trophy at the end of the season. If you are a fan of an underdog, you would love Japanese football.
Nine different teams have won the title since 2002, most of whom have been relegated (some on more than one occasion) since the league’s inception. In 2011, Kashiwa Reysol were crowned champions, having only been promoted to the J1 League the season before. Anyone can beat anyone on their day, which leads to the most intense of title races and some nail-biting relegation dogfights.
Add such unpredictable matches to the wild and party-like stadium atmospheres, combine them with a sprinkling of world-class talent, and you have a recipe for one of the most fascinating footballing experiences on the Asian continent. But of course, this is Japan - so the ludicrousness doesn’t end there.
Wild kits are commonplace, with some even intending to make goalkeepers look like giant dogs. Cartoon-like mascots have been known to participate in off-season friendly matches (both in goal, and outfield). But whilst the league officials allow for some typically Japanese madness, there is a very strict and well thought-out promotion process, which ensures that clubs are in sound financial positions before they can compete in the J1 League.
In order to participate in the first division, you must apply for a ‘J League licence’, which is awarded once a club meets a number of requirements. Stadiums must be of a certain capacity and quality, finances and employment structure in order, along with a number of other demands from the Japanese FA. If a team is then granted a license, they are eligible for promotion if they finish fourth or above in the JFL.
This, along with principles like the ‘Hundred Year Vision’, have placed the J Leagues on very solid organisational foundations. It is a stable league, with a vision that is unrivalled anywhere else in the world, a growing reputation for intoxicating support, fast-paced action and a surrounding nation with a developing infatuation for football. Japan boasts a special footballing mantra, which has enabled the league to pay homage to the country’s unique culture, whilst also embracing practises from all over the world.
The balance is perfect, the football intoxicating, and the J1 League?
Why, that’s underrated.