Frenchman redirects Japanese soccer culture

It is tough being manager of the Japanese soccer team.

Just ask Philippe Troussier, the unorthodox Frenchman at the helm of Japan's World Cup team. His role has involved not merely training his players, but educating a population of 126 million about soccer. In fact, soccer is still more of a fashion than an institution on this part of the globe.

While coaches of more established soccer nations can concentrate on team selection and tactics, Mr. Troussier says he has worked hardest on overcoming the cultural inhibitions that have kept his players from realizing their full potential and supporters from demanding greatness.

Other foreign coaches have also spoken about the problems of culture. The Dutchman Gus Hiddink, who once managed the national team, said the age-based hierarchy made it impossible for a younger player to shout orders to an older one. Steve Perryman, coach of Kashiwa Reysol, observed that Japanese soccer players paid so much respect to reputation that it was as if there was a force field around players like Dunga, a former Brazilian star who played in Japan.

"The first success I've had is that I have changed or overcome the obstacles of traditional ways of thinking," he says. "I think we have reached my first goal: a nation that is confident in our team. Eighty percent of fans think we have a chance of winning. Some really believe that we will be champions. We will start at the same level as the best teams."

Indeed, soccer still has an uncertain hold on the Japanese psyche, say experts here. Having emerged as a symbol of modern consumer culture, it is subject to the whims of fashion. In Europe, the fans "really know the game, they live football from bottom of their heart. But in Japan, you experience football like a big show, like a Madonna concert, and the players are like pop stars. So the passion for football in Japan today is not at the level of other countries," Troussier says.

In characteristic fashion, Troussier has chosen to tackle the problem of culture head on and at every level. "Some thought perhaps that my work of coaching would involve the education of the entire country. Some see me as coach, as teacher. Why not father, or brother, or husband?" he asks. "It is true that the way I was coaching has touched on all levels of society in all parts of the country. They must stick with Troussier."

To fire up his team, the Frenchman admits he plays mind games with his players to try to break through what he sees as their cultural inhibitions.

"I try to work much more on personality of players. To a certain point, I have been playing with their pride to make them communicate more, to express themselves to make decisions by themselves, which is something that the collective social environment of Japan does not allow. And I wanted to make my players make individual decisions, which is usually not accepted in Japan. I wanted them to be leaders."

Such psychological games have baffled, and often irritated, his players, his employers, and the domestic media. Two years ago, after a string of mediocre results, some fans called for his resignation. Last summer, he clashed with the team's star player, Hidetoshi Nakata when the Italian-based midfielder returned to Rome for the deciding match in the Italian league rather than turning out for Japan in the final of the Confederations Cup. Last month, he astounded the domestic media by dropping the gifted playmaker Shinsuke Nakamura from the squad.

The manager, however, is unrepentant.

"Japanese people are raised in comfort. They always try to avoid conflicts," he says. "I have tried to break down traditional and cultural barriers because they need to be ready for the World Cup. "

Japanese sakkaa (soccer) has a history of more than 100 years, but was very much on the periphery of a sporting world that centered on baseball and sumo wrestling.

The creation of Japan's J-League, in 1993, was a multibillion-yen marketing makeover. Hakuhodo, Japan's second biggest marketing agency, created a major advertisement campaign to upgrade the image of the sport, to make it, in the words of one advertising executive, "more like a disco." Sony Creative Products designed a set of cute team logos aimed at women fans, who make up more than one-third of the crowds at J-League games. Meanwhile, flashy new stadiums appeared as the growth of the J-League continued and the prospect of hosting the World Cup (confirmed in 1996) became more of a reality.

The officials in the Japanese Football Association also tried to use the J-League to nurture regional rather than corporate loyalty. At first, the changes were a stunning success. The J-League seemed to be perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. Where baseball was a game for salarymen that emphasized the virtues of loyalty and discipline, soccer was for those who considered themselves modern, individualistic, and international. The difference is apparent in appearances. While most baseball players – especially at high school level – sport uniform cropped hair, footballers are more likely to experiment with long, permed, and dyed locks.

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