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. …