Japan Success Leads to Soccer Surge
Jun. 16, 2002
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YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) _ Constant action, flamboyant players _ most sporting dyed, funky hairdos _ and thousands of screaming fans celebrating in the streets. Baseball sure doesn't have that.
Soccer has captured the imagination of Japan's younger generation, who have grown bored with the more staid image of Japanese baseball.
The home team's World Cup heroics have helped considerably. After Japan won a World Cup match for the first time by beating Russia 1-0, tens of thousands of fans poured into the streets, dancing and chanting _ a rare, if not unprecedented, outpouring of emotion in this country.
The game was the second-most watched sports program ever in Japan, just behind the women's volleyball finals in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
At this rate, soccer might overtake baseball as the nation's most popular spectator sport.
``Things are definitely changing,'' said Masayuki Tamaki, an independent sports journalist. ``Not many young people watch baseball anymore.''
Japan's strong performance, surging into the second round after three straight losses in its 1998 World Cup debut, has given fans a shot of confidence and pride, knowing their team can compete with the best.
The team, in turn, has fed off the overwhelming support.
``This will result in a brilliant future for Japanese soccer,'' Shunichiro Okano, president of the Japan Football Association, said Friday after Japan's 2-0 victory over Tunisia sent it through to the second round.
Baseball still has a huge following among the older set, raised on evening highlights of sumo and the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular team. The most recent survey, done in 2000, showed that baseball was the nation's No. 1 spectator sport, followed by marathons, horse racing and soccer, in that order.
For some Japanese, being co-host of the world's most popular sporting event has given them their first extended exposure to soccer. After initial concerns about unruly foreign fans, most Japanese have openly joined in the festivities. Some even adopted teams from other countries to cheer on, buying their soccer jerseys and painting their faces.
Children have played soccer for years, but it didn't burst onto the scene until 1993, when Japan's professional J-League was launched. It attracted attention among young people and has now grown into 28 teams in two divisions.
By cultivating homegrown talent, the J-League has been a significant factor in Japan's marked improvement in the World Cup.
``The effort to raise young soccer elites under the leadership of Japan Football Association finally seems to bear fruit,'' the Asahi Shimbun daily said in an editorial Saturday.
The United States has a similar situation with MLS. National team coach Bruce Arena wants all MLS teams to start youth teams and development programs. New York/New Jersey, DC United, Los Angeles and Columbus have established reserve teams, and MLS commissioner Don Garber says more is coming.
In recent years in Japan, attendance at J-League games has fallen off. Part of that may be due to the departure to Europe of the best players, such as Hidetoshi Nakata (Parma in Italy) and Shinji Ono (Feyenoord in the Nethelands). That's the exact same problem Japanese baseball faces, with Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo and other Japanese stars leaving for the major leagues.
One clear advantage soccer has over baseball, however, is the World Cup offers an opportunity for Japan's players to come together as a national team. There's nothing quite like it in baseball.
Also, witnessing the World Cup firsthand has allowed the Japanese to see the global nature of soccer, and that may be part of the sport's growing appeal. Baseball has a lot of catching up to do in that respect.
Tamaki urged the J-League to move quickly after the tournament ends to tap into the World Cup fever, and do more to promote teams in the regions they are based. He also encouraged Japanese fans not to let their support wane and instead throw their weight behind J-League teams.
After the match between England and Argentina in Sapporo, Tamaki said the most boisterous fans he saw were Japanese _ and they were chanting ``Sapporo Consadole,'' the local team.
``When I saw that,'' he said, ``I thought, 'That's a good sign.'''