All eyes in the Asian footballing world are fixed on China ahead of the return of the Super League (now with 100% more Carlos Tevez) next month, but Japan’s J-League is also kicking off in just two weeks. For the uninitiated, we’ve put together a handy beginner’s guide.
These days, Japanese football favours slightly more modest surroundings than those of its Far Eastern neighbours, but it did enjoy something of a boom in the 1990s, when ageing stars like Gary Lineker were lured away from the comforts of Europe for one last foreign pay day.
In between managing Monaco and Arsenal, Arsene Wenger also had a brief spell coaching in the J-League, where – as in England – his methods have had a lasting influence on the coaching and youth development (Japan now play pretty football without winning anything).
Arsene Wenger saying farewell to Nagoya Grampus supporters, incredible to look back. pic.twitter.com/I5YOt8lOkO
— Calum (@CalArsenal) August 17, 2016
Their favourite son, however, is homegrown. Kunishege Kamamoto found the net virtually every single time he took to the field between 1967 and 1984 – and if you were going to suggest that his sub-par opponents made him look better than he really was, think again: he scored some 80 goals in 84 games at international level as well.
Kashima Antlers, fresh from their exploits at the FIFA World Club Cup, where they nearly upset the apple cart against Real Madrid, are the J-League’s most successful team – it’s probably fair to call them the Japanese Manchester United.
Having won the title last year, they are this season’s favourites, but the J-League is among the most egalitarian top flights in the world thanks to restrictions on spending and foreign imports, and there are a solid handful of teams who could realistically take their crown. Urawa Red Diamonds, who were runners-up in 2016, are also in with a shout.
Players to watch
The J-League roster is primarily made up of homegrown players, and while it’s true that most Japanese players worth their salt tend to move on to Europe before long, there are a few notable exceptions who have stayed the course.
Yasuhito Endo, a set-piece wizard of 150 Japan NT caps (who you might compare to David Beckham, sans the celebrity profile) still plays for Gamba Osaka – his team for the last 15 years – at the ripe old age of 37, while Antlers, meanwhile, are captained by midfield general Mitsuo Ogasawara, also 37. Take it from us: both of these veterans could have made a name for themselves in Europe a decade ago were they so inclined.
The league that functioned as a breeding ground for the likes of Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki in recent years also has plenty of young upstarts (although many Japanese players tend to go to uni before embarking on their footballing careers in their early 20s). This season could be a break out year for Gamba’s Yosuke Ideguchi, in particular.
In terms of foreign stars, Japan shares cultural ties with Brazil both on and off the pitch, and its top flight is liberally sprinkled with former Campeonato Brasileiro stars like Leandro, last season’s top scorer.
Keep an eye out for former England man Jay Bothroyd, too. The one-cap striker, who joined Jubilo Iwata at the beginning of 2015, has found the net an impressive 32 times from just 49 league games.
Jay Bothroyd now plays for Japan side Júbilo Iwata. pic.twitter.com/oaGxPUFpVR
— Faded Footballers (@FadedFootballer) January 16, 2017