Talking a good game

It isn’t just on the pitch that people in Japanese football are starting to look overseas…

Japan is still a fairly insular country.

Change – as anyone who has ever heard me moan about faxes can attest to – takes a while here, and as the rest of the world becomes an increasingly interconnected web of business and cultures Japan is in danger of being left behind.

There are, of course, sociological and economical reasons to explain this – the fact it is an island nation, language issues, the problems inherent in the average person seemingly working 80 hours a week and getting about the same amount of time per year off work/school – but they are far beyond the scope of this column to consider.

One thing which can help encourage Japanese people to get out and experience the world, though, is having role models who do just that.

The last couple of years have seen Japanese football grow in stature around the world, and that is down in no small part to the increasing number of players who are earning moves overseas and proving themselves once there.

While the examples set by the likes of Shinji Kagawa are paving the way for other youngsters to test themselves in Europe it is not just players who are beginning to get itchy feet.

I recently attended a lecture by two Japanese speakers who are working in the international football industry, both of whom had started their careers in other fields.

Kaita Sugihara, who works as Head of Development for Asian Football Leagues at the AFC in Malaysia and is a FIFA Instructor, and Nobuhiro Yajima, who spent almost five years working for the grassroots football coaching company T3, were giving a talk on studying overseas for over 70 participants who were considering such programs.

Sugihara is a graduate of the FIFA Master course (currently being undertaken by former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto) while Yajima completed a Football Industries Master of Administration (FIMBA) course at Liverpool University and an internship at Liverpool FC before returning to Asia.

Both of them were keen to stress the importance of flexibility and not being afraid to take the plunge.

“When I was at FIMBA there were no Japanese players in the Premier League, but now that’s changed,” Yajima said. “Lots of Japanese players are in Europe, especially in Germany, which could provide you with opportunities.”

Sugihara admitted that he had never considered staying overseas after his studies, but that once the offer arrived he couldn’t turn it down.

“I wanted to work for a Japanese club or the JFA but changed simply because I received the chance to work for the AFC and decided to take the opportunity.

“Life does not always go as you planned and that’s why life is fun.”

Of course, getting into positions within the international game does take hard work as well, and the most important skill – initially, at least – is language.

MC for the evening, Kenichi Ikeda of La Bandiera dello Sport, a football business consulting company that currently works in partnership with Urawa Reds, studied in the School of Management at the Politecnico di Milano MIP and rated English ability as the most vital aspect of working internationally.

 “If you can’t speak English then the plan is finished already,” he put bluntly.

“I was the worst student in terms of English skill but could manage to do coursework,” Sugihara said of his early period studying outside of Japan.

“The problem was out-of-course communication, since that’s something I couldn’t prepare for.

“Communication is not only about English, though, you’ve got to think about ways of communication, like Nagatomo has at Inter.”

The strict and often old-fashioned way in which many Japanese companies are still run was a key motivator for both speakers to pursue other avenues, with Yajima insisting that security is not everything.

“To enjoy working is a big thing,” he said. “There are constraints but I have a real feeling that I am contributing to what I dreamed of doing.”

Sugihara agreed.

“Now my life is fun. I’m happy to spend however many tens-of-hours it takes to think of ways to improve Asian football leagues.”

It’s not easy but Sugihara and Yajima – as well as the players in Europe – do provide inspiration for others to act on the J.League’s slogan for 2012; take a risk, change the game.

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August 2012

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