How Football Gave Japan Back Its Pride; 'Troussier Is a National Figure, the Foreign Expert Par Excellence, and, in His Own Words, "Also a Father, Brother, Father-Inlaw and Husband" to the Japanese'

Article excerpt

Byline: IAN BURUMA

THE Japan-Belgium game offered a most peculiar sight. One team consisted of light blonds, coiffed like young English pop stars; the other of sober-looking men with mostly neat, dark hair. The blonds were, of course, the Japanese.

Since even the hippest Japanese are conformists at heart, they had all dyed their hair more or less the same straw colour, except for one player, who sported a bright red mohawk.

The hairstyles are a sign of something: namely that football is cool, international and, particularly, European. The international face of football in Japan is David Beckham. He is an idol, not just to sports fans but to young Japanese girls, who scream whenever they get anywhere near him, or more likely, his image. Beckham's arrival in Japan was like the second coming of The Beatles. He is one reason why a third of the Japanese soccer crowds is female. Football is cool. And the gauche young Essex boy with his magic right foot has become the role model for Japanese youth.

The contrast with Japanese baseball is telling. Baseball now has a distinctly pre-war feel. It is all about loyalty, discipline, self-sacrifice and the oldfashioned warrior spirit. High-school baseball, still something of a cult, is the last gasp of martial Japan: closecropped, unsmiling young men drilled to do battle by barking martinets, who are used to total obedience.

The word "pure" is usually applied to these young samurai.

The same spirit is carried over into professional baseball, especially in the most successful team, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, whose biggest star, named Nagashima, had his finest hour when he hit a home run on the only occasion that the late Emperor Hirohito ever attended a game. Individual eccentricities, indeed any sign of individual flair, are usually frowned upon. The idea of the Giants dyeing their hair is as absurd as Newcastle United playing football in skirts.

ALTHOUGH the history of Japanese baseball actually goes back at least as far as the Twenties, it is associated with the Americanisation of Japan, which reached its zenith during the allied occupation after the Second World War.

Soccer, on the other hand, is not just cool, it isn't American. Playing soccer is a way for the Japanese to feel plugged in to the rest of the world, and thus escape from cultural dependency on the US. With football, the occupation can be forgotten. In a sense, this takes Japan back to an earlier period, of the late 19th century, when European influences were still predominant.

From the 1860s until the early 20th century, Japan embarked on a national mission to become a modern, westernstyle nation. The slogan of the day was "Civilisation and enlightenment", that is, western civilisation and enlightenment. This meant modern Europeanstyle nationalism: a Prussian-style constitution, a British-style navy and a French-style army.

So-called foreign experts were shipped in at considerable expense to teach the Japanese not only how to build ships, bridges and railway stations, but also how to be more like Europeans - to dance waltzes and polkas and to conquer and run an empire. The experiment had mixed 'Beckham's the reason why a third of Japanese soccer crowds is female.

Football's cool. And the gauche Essex boy with his magic right foot is the role model for Japanese youth' results, as one might expect, and the backlash which inevitably followed spilt the blood of millions.

But now the foreign experts are back - as football coaches. Philippe Troussier is hardly a name to conjure with in France, let alone England. He was only famous in Burkina-Faso, in West Africa whose team he once coached, and where he was known as the "white witch doctor". But in Japan, Troussier is a national figure, quoted more often than the prime minister. As the coach of the national team, he is the foreign expert par excellence and, in his own words, "also a father, brother, father-in-law and husband" to the Japanese. …

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