New youth project takes roots in Japan

  • U-18 Football Championship has developed youngsters from across Japan

  • Promising stars like Takefusa Kubo and Yuma Suzuki have emerged

  • The country's youth development has benefited from FIFA Forward

By every standards Japan's football development in recent years has been impressive. Their men’s national team have qualified for each FIFA World Cup™ since 1998 and the women’s side have reached the top of the world, making history by winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011™. Their youngsters have also frequently competed with the elite in various FIFA youth tournaments.

Many across Asia have been left in awe by the unprecedented progress Japan have made over recent years. However, those following their game closely are aware that their investment in youth has proved key to their consistent development down the years. Notably, the All Japan U-18 Football Championship has drawn increasing attention from across the country, establishing its place as the top domestic youth competition and providing a perfect setting for talented youngsters to develop.

"There were only regional leagues before the establishment of the Prince Takamado Trophy in 2011," said Kazumichi Iwagami , Secretary General of the Japanese Football Association (JFA). "But since then, more competitive games have been played.

"One of the fruits we have reaped from​ the this competition was our U-20 national team's qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 - the first qualification since 2007. Adding to that, a host of youngsters have gained experience in the youth league before earning a place in J.League clubs or even foreign teams."

Japan won their first FIFA U-20 World Cup match for ten years when they faced South Africa at Korea Republic 2017 as continental champions.

New league in full swing The youth competition, also known as the Prince Takamado U-18 Premier League, was launched in 2011. Despite its relatively short history, the fledgling competition has seen a vast number of youngsters across Japan participate and is now fully established thanks to financial support from the FIFA Forward Programme.

"As for the financial support by FIFA, the funds are utilised for the travel expenses of participating teams," said Tomohiro Kaise, Director of the JFA's Finance Department. "This contribution is a big support for us, and is very important for the success of the competition.​"

The previous iterations of local youth competitions limited the chances for youngsters to test themselves against their country’s best. With the All Japan U-18 Football Championship though, the country's teenagers have a platform from which they can realise their dreams.

The project now reaches more youngsters than ever before with the U-18 League contested by local teams from across the country's nine regions in the preliminary stage. A total of 20 teams qualify for the final stage, where they are divided into two groups (East and West Zones) of ten with each competing in a round-robin and home-and-away format. The two group winners advance to the play-off to decide the final champions while the two bottom sides in each group are relegated to the lower league.

Aomori-Yamada High School emerged the surprise champions of the East Zone in 2016, winning a group which also featured the likes of Kashima Antlers, Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo. The latter, however, bounced back in the most recent season, taking the competition by storm. The capital club finished as East Zone champions ahead of Shimizu S-Pulse, before clinching the national title by edging West Zone champions Vissel Kobe 3-2 in the play-off.

"We have never won this competition before," said the reigning champion’s coach Kazuki Sato. "The U-18 league is a lengthy tournament. It provides our young boys with excellent experiences as they have worked hard to gain this achievement."

FC Tokyo came from two goals down to defeat Vissel Kobe U-18 3-2 after extra time in a dramatic finale to the Prince Takamado Trophy.

Key facts and stats: 360 games are played throughout a season in the U-18 league, with each team averaging 18 games 9 regions from Japan have teams involved in the league's preliminary stage 13 club teams made it through to the final stage in 2017 alongside seven High School sides

Starlets nurtured The U-18 league has seen a series of talented individuals come through the ranks. Among the most recent revelations is Takefusa Kubo, who honed his skills and gained experiences in the competition by representing FC Tokyo. The teenager's progress was such that he figured for Japan in both the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups last year. Having received international recognition, the 16-year-old has now graduated into the capital club's first team.

Kashima Antlers' Yuma Suzuki is another product of the U-18 League’s school of talent. The young striker impressed in the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup, notably getting on the scoresheet in the 3-0 semi-final victory against South American champions Atletico Nacional.

Arguably the biggest star the U-18 competition has produced is on-song striker Takumi Minamino, who is plying his trade with Red Bull Salzburg. The 23-year-old has featured for both Japan's U-23 side and senior team and is in the running for a spot in Vahid Halilhodzic's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ squad.

"Focusing on youth development is critical for any football association aspiring to harness the power of football to secure the future strength and success of the game," said Sanjeevan Balasingam, FIFA's Director of Member Association for Asia & Oceania. "Therefore, FIFA is committed to promoting youth competitions in order to create more opportunities for young players and bridge the gap between grassroots and the elite.

"The JFA’s utilisation of the FIFA Forward Programme funds for the U-18 competition and its successful organisation is one strong indicator, among others, as to why the association is deemed to be strategically and competitively sound in the football world."