Professional football leagues have existed for several decades in many countries across the world. Japan has proven, nevertheless, that a late-starting championship can evolve into a prominent one. Its J.League, indeed, didn’t launch until 1993, but is now firmly established as a forerunner in Asian club football.
"I think the J.League is truly remarkable for its achievements, having generated significant changes to Japanese football and sports society," said JFA president Kuniya Danini. "A number of excellent Japanese players have been brought up and as a result, the national teams of all levels have made progress, while the J.League clubs have made success in the prestigious international competitions."
On the competition’s 20th anniversary, FIFA.com reviews its admirable ascent.
In a sense, Japan's first club competition, the Japan Soccer League (JSL), concurred with the country's economic boom from the 1960s to 1980s. Formed in 1965, the 12-strong amateur championship was brought to an end in 1992, when the Japanese Football Association (JFA) decided to form a professional league on the back of the nation’s maiden success in the AFC Asian Cup that same year.
Until then, golf and baseball had long dominated Japanese sports, with football in the back seat. With professional management, however, the new-look league took the country by storm as football began to find its place among the headlines. One of the biggest attractions of the fledging league was their foreign imports, many of whom are among the world’s established stars.
Topping the list was Zico, who helped little-known Kashima Antlers become runners-up in the inaugural J.League. Then came his compatriot Dunga, who became the apple of the local fans' eye through his displays for Jubilo Iwata, while Serbian Dragan Stoijkovic emerged the tournament’s MVP in 1995, playing under an Arsene Wenger-coached Nagoya Grampus.
Catching the most attention, of course, were the league's first local stars. The most notable was Kazuyoshi Miura, who steered Verdy Kawasaki to the title in the opening two editions. Led by the ‘King Kazu’ and boasting the likes of Masashi Nakayama, Masami Ihara and Ruy Ramos, Japan went so close to qualifying for USA 1994, only missing out through conceding a late goal in the 2-2 draw against Iraq.
The J.League's immediate success prompted Jubilo Iwata and Bellmare Hiratsuka to join in 1994, expanding it to a 12-team event, before six more sides followed suit over the next four seasons. As a result, more and more fans were attracted to stadiums, with the 1994 season marking a record average attendance of 19,598.
The smoothly-run league provided local youngsters with a perfect setting to emerge and develop, with a series of burgeoning starlets coming up through the ranks. To name a few, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura all became idols for their respective clubs and mutual country,
before earning high-profile moves to Europe.
With the J.League's development, continental success naturally ensued for its clubs. Yokohama Flugels first won the Asian Super Cup in 1995 and four years later Jubilo repeated the feat. The flourishing championship laid solid foundation for the Japan national team, who conquered Asia in 2000, 2004 and 2011 while sealing their first-ever qualification for the FIFA World Cup™ at France 1998.
Star production line
The J.League's success didn't go unnoticed by the AFC, who singled it out as the only league with a A ranking. Japan’s superiority was underlined by achievements in the AFC Champions League, with Urawa Red reigning supreme in 2007 before Gamba Osaka repeaed the feat the next year.
Even more impressive is the league's ever-growing star production line, with a clutch of promising stars emerging to form the backbone of the current national team under Italian Alberto Zaccheroni. Both Manchester United new boy Shinji Kagawa and Stuttgart forward Shinji Okazaki cut their teeth in the J.League, while former Nagoya Grampus star Keisuke Honda, now plying his trade with CSKA Moscow, has developed into the team's new talisman.
Among the latest revelations, Hannover ace Hiroki Sakai has begun his acclimatisation to the Bundesliga and his fellow Japan U-23 team-mate Hiroshi Kiyotake recently signed for Nurnberg.
With the J.League becoming a powerful launching pad for youngsters, it appears en route to realising a goal the JFA outlined in 2005: to become one of the world’s leading championships. "Many of our players are receiving international reputation, to our great joy," said JFA president Danini.
"The fact is a testament to the success of our system of player development. Like the past, the experiences Japanese players gain in Europe can make a positive impact when they play with our national team and after they return to J-League clubs. Their success encourages children to pursue their football dream.