TOKYO - Two decades since kickoff, football is still on a rapid ascent in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The sport has made huge strides in Japan since the professional J-League was founded 20 years ago. The women's team is the World Cup champion and the men are determined to prove themselves against the world's elite football nations.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the J-League has gone from a competition that imported aging veterans — England's Gary Lineker and Brazilian Zico to name but two — to a production line for quality players like Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo.
Guided by former AC Milan boss Alberto Zaccheroni, the men's national team is on the brink of qualifying for its fifth straight World Cup. Earning a place at the marquee event didn't always come so easily.
In 1993, the year the J-League started, Japan failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup when it conceded a goal at the very end of a 2-2 draw with Iraq on neutral ground at Doha, Qatar.
What became known as "The Agony of Doha" raised concern that the sport wouldn't take off in Japan. Japanese players were too small, many argued, to compete against bigger International rivals, and lacked the proper mindset to play a game that relied so much on individual creativity. Some suggested Japan should stick to baseball, a sport that had been around since the 1800s and was more suited to the country's group mentality.
But with characteristic perseverance, Japan's players used the disappointment of Doha as a source of motivation and qualified for their first World Cup in 1998.
American Tom Byer, a former professional player and youth development coach in Japan who has spent the past 20 years in the country, attributes its success to development at the grass-roots level.
"The reason things are so good in Japan right now is that there is massive investment in youth soccer," said Byer, who took notice of Kagawa at a youth clinic many years ago. "If you look at the countries that are doing well now, they are not just doing well at the top end but at the grass-roots level as well."
Byer also says football benefits from a Japan Football Association annual budget of $168 million, one he figures is among the largest in the world.
Japan is the only country from East Asia taking part in the under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates later this year and Junji Ogura, honorary president of the JFA, reflected on the organization's philosophy of developing the sport at all levels.
"We need to look at what we have to do in strengthening our national teams in each age category," Ogura said. "We're committed to producing talented coaches and referees, coaching and educating young players, developing women's football and improving football's overall environment."
Football at all levels got a huge boost in Japan two years ago when the women's team beat the United States 3-1 in a penalty shootout, becoming the first Asian team to win the Women's World Cup. The victory touched off nationwide celebrations at a time when Japan was recovering from the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
On the men's side, Japan surprised many at the 2010 World Cup by advancing past the group stage with wins over Cameroon and Denmark before losing on penalties to Paraguay in the knockout stage.
With the promising result in South Africa, the feeling of many is that Japan is poised to take the next step by competing with the world's elite football powers.
Zaccheroni was hired in 2010 and so far Japan's results have been encouraging under the 59-year-old Italian. Japan beat Argentina 1-0 in Zaccheroni's first game in charge and then went on to win a record fourth Asian title with a 1-0 win over Australia at the 2011 Asian Cup.
Zaccheroni's team can secure a fifth straight World Cup appearance, with games to spare, on March 26 in Amman when it faces Jordan.
With the success, however, comes higher expectations and the pressure is on to deliver. A first- or second-round exit at next year's World Cup in Brazil would be viewed as a disappointment given all the time, money and effort that has gone into football in Japan over the years.
Because Japan plays so many games in Asia, Byer says the region needs to improve for Japan to keep advancing and that's why the JFA dispatches coaches to other Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.
"Asia is just not good enough right now," Byer said. "So Japan cruises through the World Cup qualifiers and then things get lopsided when they play the best teams in the world."
Japan beat France 1-0 in a friendly last year but was brought back to earth four days later after a 4-0 thrashing by Brazil.
Zaccheroni says Japan must play to its unique strengths against the major powers and they'll get a chance to do that at the Confederations Cup this summer with matches against host Brazil, Italy and Mexico.
"Japan's biggest strength is speed which will prove to be effective against big, physical sides," Zaccheroni said. "We need to move the ball faster, learn to shake off marking faster and make faster decisions to be able to play to our strengths even against the strongest of opponents."
If there's one missing element from Japan's game over the years it's the presence of a bona fide goal scorer and for that Zaccheroni will be counting on the likes of Kagawa and Stuttgart's Shinji Okazaki, who have both shown a talent for finding the net.
Kagawa knows he'll be relied upon to score in the big tournaments.
"Even if you are a good player, nobody rates you if you don't deliver results," Kagawa said. "Top players score goals and as a player, results are the most important thing. Goals are what give you confidence and help you mentally."
Awarding Japan the right to co-host the 2002 World Cup with South Korea gave the sport a massive lift. From the point FIFA made the decision, everything about the game took on a more professional tone. State-of-the-art stadiums were built; media coverage was ramped up and football was front and centre in the sporting culture as Japan prepared to host the world.
Baseball still may be the most popular sport but few baseball games can match the level of excitement and attention the national team commands at home games, where 70,000-seat stadiums are sold out and TV ratings skyrocket.
The J-League season overlaps with baseball but the two leagues have their own place in Japan's sporting culture. The J-League made the tactical decision to put teams in many areas where there isn't a baseball team and the decision has paid off. League attendance has remained steady over the years despite a downturn in the economy.
The challenge now is for the national team to turn that league momentum into results at the highest level.
Japan's next opportunity to measure itself against the best sides will be in June at the Confederations Cup in Brazil, the warm-up tournament for next year's World Cup.
Zaccheroni, for one, is already relishing the prospect.
"The Confederations Cup will be tough but that's what we want," he said. "Only quality teams are in the tournament, so we must use the competition as a building block for 2014."
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