This year marks the 20th season of professional football in Japan, so for Soccer Magazine this week I got the opinions of two wise old heads on the development of the game since 1993…
The J.League’s 20th season is now underway, and Japanese football has come a long way since its inception in 1993.
Last week, ahead of the season openers, I was able to get the impressions of two huge names in world football on the league’s progress and where it can go from here.
Dragan Stojkovic, of course, played for Grampus from 1994, and now as the manager of the team he has seen first-hand the steady improvement made over the past two decades.
He was, unsurprisingly, hugely complimentary about the development of football in the country.
“Regarding 20 years ago and today, of course it’s a big difference,” he said. “A big difference in a positive way for Japanese football generally.”
“From 1998 until two years ago they have participated in [all] the World Cups.
“But also, J.League teams in many aspects have shown improvement.”
Ossie Ardiles is back for the celebration, too, as head coach of new J2 side Machida Zelvia.
The Argentinian legend has been in and out of the country since 1996, when he took charge of Shimizu S-Pulse, also having spells in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy.
He is also impressed with how far the game has come.
“Now it’s established itself in, I would say the second tier,” he said when I asked him how he perceived the Japanese top-flight.
“It’s not elite, it’s not Spain or England. No, this is the next step and this is the most difficult step.”
Piksi agreed with that assessment.
“They are not in the same level. No, there’s huge money there,” he commented.
“Look at Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona. They pay huge money for players. Give me 200 million Euros and you can see which team I can make, no problem.
“This is a big difference. Don’t compare J.League with European leagues, it’s not fair. But the Japanese should be happy which kind of football they have.”
Ardiles didn’t rule out another step up entirely, though, and suggested that it was his job to assist in that aim.
“I always think that [the job of] not only me but all the kantoku here is to improve the football. I believe that Japanese football has improved tremendously from the moment that the J.League was formed.”
When I asked how to achieve such a lofty target he admitted it was tricky, though.
“Ah! Ah! This is the one million dollar question. The next step, to make Japanese football elite, is the most difficult one,” he said.
“It’s not like you have a magic wand and say, ‘wow we are going to play this way or we are going to copy one style’, say Barcelona or whoever it is,” he continued.
“It’s a lot deeper than that; it has to do with cultural things.”
He used the example of Lionel Messi (“the best ever” in Ossie’s opinion – “Don’t tell Maradona, though!”) to illustrate that point.
“For example, can a Messi be produced in Japan? [That’s] very difficult because for a Messi to be produced not only do you have to be brilliant in terms of skill and so on, but the culture of the country has to help.
“Basically, Messi from the day he was born he was playing football. In Japan that doesn’t happen. Yet.”
Piksi was more content to focus on what Japan does do well – particularly considering the recent violent troubles his family had experienced back home in Serbia.
“What they keep, and what they prove again, is that Japan and Japanese football is the number one league for fair play,” he said.
“This is a very amazing result regarding what happens with hooligans, what happens with other stupid things around football and in football around the world. This is a fantastic achievement for them.”
When also bearing in mind that this past weekend’s round of matches marked one year since the tragedy in Eastern Japan that is perhaps even more important to remember.
“Let’s be happy and enjoy the football,” he continued.
“Let’s deliver the good things and the happy things to the people who come to the stadium. And provide them [with a] safe arrival and safe departure after the game. This is very important.”