Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On Japanese Soccer Culture

The Financial Times recently had a very interesting article on soccer in Japan, which has one of the best teams in Asia, if not the best. Some of the article related the ups and downs of particular players and matches, but the part I found most interesting was about the fans:

The odd thing was that Philippe Troussier, their French coach, seemed oddly gloomy throughout the tournament. On a windswept terrace at their Beirut hotel, he gave the sort of despairing, dyspeptic interview that usually indicates a manager is coming to the end of his tether.

Japan had no football culture, he moaned. There was none of the ruthless desire to win he had experienced during his years coaching in Africa....
Football existed in Japan before 1993 but not in a meaningful way. Before the J League was inaugurated, Saburo Kawabuchi, the head of the Japanese football federation, sent researchers round the globe to report back on issues such as fan behaviour, tactics and marketing.

In the short term, it worked – the J League boomed and the national team was set on its way to Asian supremacy.

The problem, though, is that what began as mimicry has remained just that – it has not taken root and become organic. Kawabuchi has spoken of fans losing their inhibitions when they enter a stadium, taking on different national characteristics in the style of their support. “They are Japanese living in their own country,” he said, “who have abandoned a little of their Japaneseness.”

But that is the issue: fans put on great shows of colour and noise that are impressive until the game starts, at which it becomes apparent that their spectacle is divorced from what is happening on the pitch: a goal is scored against a team, and their fans carry on their song without missing a beat.

Shunsuke Nakamura (pictured), Celtic’s Japanese winger, made the point indirectly in speaking of his love for the fans in Glasgow. “They let the players raise their level,” he said. “They’re amazing. Their cheers change in response to the play.” Which, implicitly, is not the case in Japan.

It is fandom learnt by rote.
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