It all began more than 40 years ago with a chance meeting at the Furukawa Electric Co. After making the acquaintance of the current Japanese Football Association (JFA) President, Mr. Saburo Kawabuchi, in 1962, Junji Ogura's passion for the game has transported him from involvement in the company's football club to his present position as a member of FIFA's Executive Committee and JFA Vice President. While still finding time to perform a variety of important roles within the Executive Committee of the Asian Football Confederation, Mr Ogura spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about December's FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005, the future development of football in Asia and football's debt to sumo wrestling.
What are your expectations for this year's all-new FIFA Club World Championship?
There are two main factors for me. Firstly, as a fan, the opportunity to see the champions from all five continents, including Asia and Africa, competing to decide the greatest club team in the world is simply a mouthwatering proposition. The broader scope of the competition sets it apart from the previous format and with clubs composed of players from all over the globe it offers a completely different experience to that of the FIFA World Cup.
Obviously, being Japanese, the fact that Japan is hosting this event in 2005 is an honour. That a J-League team will not be present is, of course, a disappointment but I intend to support the AFC champions, whoever they may be, as they represent the strength of Asian football. Victory over Liverpool or Sao Paulo, teams rightly touted as giants of the game, is not the long shot many people may assume.
Although this year saw the AFC Champions League celebrate its third successful year, J-League teams did not exactly set the tournament on fire. What are your thoughts on the performance of Japanese sides in the competition?
It is important to bear in mind that Asia is a very big place, immense in fact. Different countries, although constituents of the same continent, exhibit huge differences in climate, religion and so many other factors that influence a competition like the Champions League. Of course there is then the time difference and the long journeys players have to make for away games. Together, all these factors make timetabling international games very difficult. The current system places Champions League matches in a particularly hectic period not only for the J-League but also for the Korean K-League. Their players are already tired before a single ball has been kicked and as a result are not at their best. I think re-scheduling is essential in order to remedy this problem and give J-League teams more of a fighting chance in competitions to come.
Moving on, what are the key issues currently facing football in the region today?
There is certainly no shortage of goals for everyone concerned with the Asian game. The Executive Committee at FIFA has the elimination of racism and the eradication of child labour as two of its major goals. These are two problems which, I am reluctant to add, are most prevalent in the Asia region. The AFC meanwhile is stressing the importance of improving the standards of Asian football, at all levels, with the promotion of the Vision Asia programme. This programme will send experts to countries throughout Asia to assist in the development of national associations. The JFA, the model on which Vision Asia was conceived, is equally busy. We are providing advisory support, promoting youth development, and offering assistance with equipment, match balls and much much more.
What do you see as the blueprint for the future of Asian football?
Asia is the most populous continent on the planet. It follows therefore that it has the potential to produce a huge number of star players. Naturally, recognising and developing this hidden talent is a long-term task and is still a long way off but I, as well as others, believe that one day Asia will produce a club that will go on to dominate the world stage as European and South American clubs do today.
The first step is, as I mentioned before, to boost the standards of the Asian game as a whole by developing and strengthening professional domestic leagues. At the present time the majority of countries do not have an organised professional club system but the dream is that in the not too distant future a network of lively leagues, like the J-League, combined with a good deal of disciplined training, will have Asia turning out quality players on a regular basis. If the quality of Asian football improves then an increase in Asia's allocation of places at the World Cup will surely not be too far behind.
The co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup between Korea Republic and Japan won much praise across the region. What lasting effects do you think it had on Asia in particular?
To be perfectly honest, the reception was overwhelming, much more than I had personally anticipated. Many people looked upon the tournament being co-hosted by Korea and Japan as being hosted by "Asia as one", it fostered a real awareness of regional identity. This is one of the advantages gained that will leave a lasting impression. I have been told on several occasions that the two co-hosts working so hard in collaborating for the event had boosted confidence and pride throughout Asia.
Another real benefit, and possibly something with an even longer-term effect was the ability of this World Cup to reach many more Asian kids. Time differences have made it very difficult for fans in Asia, especially South-east Asia, to watch previous tournaments held mainly on the other side of the world in real time. In some of those children, watching star players play at the highest level will spark the desire to step out onto that pitch themselves, to become a professional football player. Those children and their ambition are the future of Asian football. I myself remember being enthralled by "Goal!", the film documentary retelling the 1966 World Cup in England, and the impression it had on me has yet to fade.
On reflection, where do you think Japan gained the most from 2002?
In a word, stadiums. If Japan had not hosted the World Cup, places like Niigata and Oita would not have been able to build 40,000-seater stadiums. Bigger capacity means bigger crowds and bigger gate receipts for teams like Niigata Albirex, who, with their massive supporter base, bring an added degree of colour and excitement making the J-League more attractive than ever. Having said that, the effect on Japan's confidence as a footballing nation cannot be overlooked either. Not only did the national side make the last 16 but also the spirit of hospitality of the Japanese people was so well received that many in Japan dubbed the 2002 tournament, the "World Cup of Smiles". Even I was taken aback by the kindness shown to all of those who came.
What is your assessment of Japanese football today?
There is still a lot of work to be done before Japan can be called strong. Although standards in domestic football are steadily improving, the degree to which its strength is propped up by a handful of individuals is still easily discernible.
Domestic players gaining experience abroad as well as the drafting of foreign stars into the J-League will help to raise the general level in the Japanese game. The J-League needs to be developed in this way so as to be able to turn out generations and generations of Japanese players capable of playing at international level. Part of this involves improving and increasing elite academies for the nurturing of young talent as well as the training of referees, administrative staff and other related officials. As an exercise in developing such human resources, hosting events like the World Cup and the FIFA Club World Championship provides invaluable experience and opportunities.
As with many other issues we have touched on, your book on the international politics of football gives a detailed analysis of the opposition that arose in Japan to a professional football league. What was behind this opposition?
Firstly, the image of the professional sportsperson was not, in Japan at least, a good one. Earning a living from sport was a difficult concept for many to accept, maybe because sports development in Japan has always been heavily focused in the school system. Another concern was what players were to do for employment after retiring from a career in professional football. Age and education factors would conspire against former players trying to find a job in the average Japanese company. Despite the resistance, both I and Mr. Kawabuchi knew that the status quo, players employed by corporations to play in corporate leagues, would never form the basis of a strong footballing nation. We were both in no doubt that a professional league was an essential first step.
In the face of constant criticism, the plans for the professional league and a World Cup bid continued apace as the domestic economy boomed. What influence did your experience as a representative stationed in the UK from 1981 to 1987 have on the process of forming the J-League? Did you consider adopting one of the systems used by professional sports already established in Japan?
The J-League exists due, in no small part, to my time in the UK and the people who looked after me with such kindness and generosity. Having said that, both Mr. Kawabuchi and I found much to learn from Japanese baseball, in particular the Baseball Agreement. Sumo was an even more valuable source of inspiration. At that time, of all the sports in Japan, Sumo was the most successful in a business sense. We were struck by the similarities in terms of economic and personnel scope between professional football teams and the world of sumo wrestling. Also, in terms of organisation status, both Nihon Sumo Kyokai and the JFA are foundations. Sumo gave us ideas for everything from youth training programmes and pension schemes to operating budgets.
The next step was to bring in the team loyalty aspect found in the heartlands of the game, Britain, Italy, and Germany, where each club team is raised, supported, even loved by the people in its home city or area, where the club forms an integral element of the local landscape, and is a part of everyday life.
After such a rich education on a steep learning curve Japan is now in a position where we are teaching what we have learned to other countries in Asia This passing on of knowledge is just one of the traditions of the beautiful game.