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

Article excerpt

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.

"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. …