Japan Wages Soccer Campaign

In a bid to host the World Cup finals in 2002, the Japanese have recently spent billions to create fans for a sport recently of low status, played only by grammar-school children

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JAPAN kicked off its first professional soccer league last month in a well-plotted national campaign aimed at winning a bid to host the World Cup finals in the year 2002.

The only thing missing from the opening game of the new, 10-team "J. League" were hooligans in the stadium.

J. League officials, eager to imitate European soccer, actually planned to bring in "overly enthusiastic" fans but they could not find enough Japanese who could be raging and spontaneous.

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"They would disappear into the crowd too quickly," says Saburo Kawabuchi, J. League's chairman.

But the marketing wizards behind the new league have been able to convert hundreds of thousands of Japanese into sudden soccer fans over the past year, despite the sport's recent lowly status in Japan as something played only by grammar-school kids and much less popular than sumo and baseball.

Trends are easy to create in fad-sensitive Japan, and with Japanese corporations eager to see Japan host the Cup, billions of yen have been invested in the J. League to build grass-roots enthusiasm, or at least the appearance of a soccer boom among young people in the media and in advertising.

Japanese newspapers willingly complied with the national campaign to create soccer "fever." Fans are "delirious," Nikkei reported. The popularity is "astounding," said Yomiuri. The J. League "symbolizes the coming of a new age," according to Asahi.

Why do so many Japanese conform to such trend-making? Postwar education emphasized discipline and restrictions, claims Hiroshi Kawai, a noted psychiatrist, creating "empty-minded people waiting for instructions to be given."

The only troubling question for J. League officials is whether the popularity boom will last until 1996 when soccer's worldwide governing body, known as FIFA, selects the host for the 2002 Cup.

For the opening league game between the Yokohama Marinos and Yomiuri Verdy (which came with a $1.2-million, celebrity-laden sideshow) the TV audience was an unusually high 32.4 percent. But the next day another game between the Kashima Antlers and the Nagoya Grampu got only 9.4 percent.

"The J. League is like a designer league. It has no tradition," said Guido Tognoni, FIFA press officer. "It was designed, researched, and planned in every detail in typical Japanese style. It cannot fail."

First proposed in the late 1980s, after the United States had been chosen for the 1994 Cup, the J. League primarily serves as a farm system for the national team that will compete in the future Cups. Japan has not qualified for any Cup ever, although it did win a bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Officials admit that if Japan fails to qualify for the 1994 contest in the US, it may not win its bid to host the Cup.

But the Japanese national team competing for the 1994 Cup has done well enough so far to enter the second qualifying round among the Asian teams.

FIFA officials have indicated they want the 2002 Cup to be held in some Asian country and hint that Japan would be the best choice. But Japan faces tough competion from the United Arab Emirates, China, and South Korea, which has proposed co-hosting the Cup with North Korea.

The 1998 Cup will be held in France. Germany is bidding for the 2006 Cup.

J. League officials have tried to learn from the mistakes of the failed North American Soccer League of the 1970s. The US, says Mr. Kawabuchi, allowed too many foreigners on each team and failed to develop local players. It also lacked a system to train young players and it grew too rapidly by creating 24 teams.

But American sports-marketing techiques, such as merchandising of soccer-related items, is being imitated in a big way to raise revenues. And the European system of creating home-town loyalties to a soccer team was also copied.

Most sports teams in Japan are tied to big companies, but J. League is trying a risky experiment in regional rivalry.

J. League decided to allow three imported soccer players per team until Japan is able to develop its own stars. "By 2002, we will be top level in the world," says Kawabuchi. Japan also lacks coaches and professional referees.

A total of 45 foreign players have been bought at high salaries. The biggest star is Gary Lineker, who was captain of England's national team last year. He is backed by Toyota Motor Corp., which hopes to boost its image in Europe by using his name. Lineker has been somewhat frustrated by the Japanese style of play, which uses short passes.

Other stars include Zico of Brazil, who has played in three Cups, and Pierre Littbarski, a star from Germany's 1990 World Cup champion team. Former Dutch striker Marius Johan Ooft manages Japan's national team.

Japan's biggest soccer star is Miura (Kazu) Kazuyoshi of the Verdy team. He is noted for his unusual dance of jubilation after he scores.

The construction industry in Japan likes the new league because some 15 stadiums will be needed to host the Cup, each with at least 40,000 seats. The average soccer stadium in Japan has only 15,000 seats. And Japan's televisionmakers also like the prospects of selling more high-definition sets because they display soccer play particularly well compared to baseball.

J. League will need an average of 30,000 spectators per match, "otherwise it will be painful financially," says Kawabuchi.

For help, the league hopes the government will approve a lottery for soccer matches, modeled after Britain's pool betting. But the move has faltered because of reports of top politicians illegally gambling on mah-jongg, a popular game in Japan.

Worried that fans might lose interest if too many games end in tie scores, the J. League sought reluctant permission from FIFA to use the "sudden death" rule. In case of a tie, an extra 30 minutes is given for one side to score. Then if there is still a tie, the winner is decided by penalty kicks. "The Japanese have a tendency not to like a draw," said Kawabuchi. "We need some decision."

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