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J. League’s Onitake optimistic about future

by James Mulligan

The Japan Times recently visited J. League chairman Kenji Onitake at his office to find out about his vision for the future of the league and soccer in Japan.

News photoKenji Onitake, chairman of the J. League, speaks at his office at JFA House. Onitake played for the
Yanmar team during the 1960s and told The Japan Times he was a right winger, before he hung up his boots
and led the team to multiple Japan Soccer League titles and Emperor’s Cup victories.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Onitake took the reigns as the third J. League chairman in July last year and immediately promised to make the professional game even more attractive by encouraging the individuality of the league, clubs and players.

The 67-year-old is now presiding over his first full season in charge and is working hard to make good his pledge and carry on the work of predecessors Saburo Kawabuchi, the Japan Football Association president who started the league in 1993, and Masaru Suzuki.

A former president of Cerezo Osaka and league vice-chairman under Suzuki, Onitake has been involved in soccer in Japan since his days as a student at Waseda University, where he won many regional trophies.

After graduating from Waseda, he joined Yanmar Diesel Engine Co., Ltd. in 1962 and played for the Yanmar team until 1967, making his name as a right winger.

Onitake then took over as manager of the team from 1967 to 1978, leading his sides to a hat trick of Japan Soccer League titles and Emperor’s Cups, before taking up various executive positions within the Yanmar organization.

With the advent of the J. League in 1993, Onitake led Yanmar to become a professional club and was named the first president of Cerezo Osaka in the year the league began, before resigning to become J. League vice chairman in 2004.

What level is the J. League at in terms of its potential in Japan? How much bigger can it get?

To tell you the exact number of spectators at J. League matches last year, there were 8,363,963, which means, on average, 58 percent of J1 stadiums’ capacity and a little less than 40 percent of the J2 stadiums’ capacity.

The plan is for the J. League to have 11 million spectators a year by 2010.

What are the most important steps needed to be taken in developing the J. League?

The most important thing is that for each club to be rooted in the community. The club must be part of peoples’ lives in the community, something people can’t afford to lose in their lives.

In the community, we foster the development of an environment, which we call an academy, where youngsters, from kids to about 21-year-olds, can enjoy sport. And soccer should be one of those sports. We never think of competing with other sports.

We aim to foster kids in the community through the sport. All kids do not have to play soccer.

You have stressed the need for clubs, players and the league to develop their individuality in the J. League so as to improve and develop players who can compete on the world level. Can you talk a little more about this?

Each person has his own individuality. Individuality is a person’s character or personality, or strong point. Everybody has it naturally. What we’re saying is, develop your individuality, have something other people don’t have or can’t do.

And the teams have to put together the players’ individualities. That establishes the teams’ individuality.

The same thing goes with the community. Each community and people living there has individuality. The quality of community varies. Osaka has its own personality, same with Hokkaido (and) Kyushu.

The individuality of the J. League is the character of the nation of Japan. By developing the good things of Japan, we can show ourselves to the world.

What steps at youth level are the J. League and the clubs taking in developing the next generation of stars who can possibly surpass the achievements of the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata?

In Japan, there is always competition in all the levels of soccer — from elementary school to college or company league. They always want to win in a team, even if it is just in elementary school soccer.

Winning as a team in all levels is the most important thing for them, their mission. Always win, win, win . . . But they’ll get tired of competing by the time they become adults.

We think youngsters’ goals should be winning at the highest level, as grownups, not trying to win in every level. They shouldn’t be focused just to try to win until becoming adults.

The J. League has been trying to foster youth in each community and winning is not important at this stage. After, they’ll go to the community’s J. League club as adults and try to win.

The top club’s manager must think of winning. But until then, fostering kids is more important than just trying to win.

Japanese teams of 10-year-old kids can beat Germany, France and other European clubs. Their kids’ teams are weak. But for the adult teams, they’ll beat Japan. Why is that? They do individual training. But we do team training and that’s wrong.

For kids, technique and individual tactics are important. But coaches try to make kids fit the team. But this is changing.

Futsal (fewer players, smaller pitches) and small-sided games are very effective with youngsters.

The J. League and JFA organize all kinds of soccer. Some communities are led by J. League and others by JFA. And we have a close relationship with each other.

We’ll have the new futsal league this fall. You can play futsal anywhere even on the tennis court or the roof of the buildings. Kids watch the adults play it and they will also play. By doing this, they can improve their technique.

So, can Japan develop future superstars who can play regularly for the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the future? It’s a tough question. But I think there are lots of future (Carlos) Tevez’s or (Lionel) Messi’s in Japan. The important thing is how to foster them to be the future stars.

I believe there is a lot of potential among the 10-year-old kids. We need coaches that can find their potential and train those kids properly.

This year, very young players went to Europe, (18-year-old) Sho Ito and (20-year-old) Tsukasa Umesaki. They grew up after the J. League started. So, in 10 years’ time, the situation will be a lot different. So, maybe 10 years or 20 years from now, I hope . . . (laughs). But seriously, it’s step by step.

Are you concerned about the likes of Ito and Umesaki going straight to Europe and not playing in the J. League or only playing a season or so here?

The talented youth can come to the J. League or they can go to play overseas by skipping the J. League. That’s fine but I don’t want to see all the players leave Japan, though (laughs).

There seem to be a lot of young Japanese players guilty of not realizing their early potential. Do some think they are “stars” when they make the J. League and so lose some of their desire to improve because in their minds they have already “made it”?

If that’s the case, I guess they may think they can take a break during the process of stepping up, but they’re wrong to do that. Or their coaches are wrong to let them do that. It could continue to happen for some seasons, but it’ll be solved. It must be solved.

It might be true that some players stop improving while other players keep improving. It depends on each player. That is where I feel the J. League hasn’t had as much of a history as European leagues.

There use to be more of that kind of player before because we didn’t have the professional league. The amateur league was their only goal. But now they have a big goal in the professional league. They have the goal to play as a professional in Japan or in the world.

Former Urawa Reds boss Guido Buchwald said the J. League is the fifth-best league in the world in terms of quality and competitiveness (after England, Spain, Italy and Germany). What do you make of this?

First of all, I want to know which is No. 6 six or No. 7! We are glad to hear that. There are a lot of values in the individual leagues — the value of the matches, links to the community, club management, media coverage. I think the ranking should be based on the total of those things.

We’re pleased with the assessment, but at the same time, there is still some gap between the top four and No. 5. We need to make a concerted effort to narrow the gap.

What can the J. League learn from other leagues around the world?

From two or three years prior to the start of the J. League in 1993, we started to prepare the launch of the professional league. But Japan soccer has about an 80- to 100-year history.

Before we established the J. League, we studied sports management in Europe and the United States, especially the four major sports of North America.

In Europe, soccer has a more than 100-year history. So we also studied the development and evolution of soccer there.

Has the introduction of the one-stage league system improved the J. League? Is there a danger of the league becoming less competitive, with the likes of big clubs such as Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds winning the league every year and the other clubs being left behind?

We decided to go with the one-stage system by watching the trends of leagues around the world and decided the league competition of soccer be continued the whole season.

It can’t be helpful (to some clubs) at an early stage. But we have to work hard to close the gap.

For example, in an 18-team league, the top six compete for the championship and the bottom six could be demoted to the second division and the other six go either way.

The important thing is make an effort to narrow the gap of these three categories. By doing so, we can help make the national team compete at the top level of the world and the club management also can improve.

Why do you think there are so many Brazilians playing in the J. League? Would you like to see a balanced mixture of foreign players in the league?

At the start of the J. League, we had a connection with Brazilian players and that could be one of the reasons. Japan could be an environment where young Brazilians know they will have many opportunities to play well.

In Europe — England, Germany, Italy, Spain — people grow up and want to play there. That’s their way of thinking. They move within Europe. They are not familiar with Japan and its culture. Kids don’t know there is the J. League in Japan.

Brazilians, even kids, know about Japan well. We have many second generation Japanese-Brazilians. We have the history of people who emigrated to Brazil to work. So there is the decent connection between Japan and Brazil.

Also, Brazilian players are skillful, speedy and tricky and Japanese people love their playing style.

The J. League attracted some of the world’s most famous players in the 1990s but this has now tapered off. Recently the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer has signed David Beckham. What are your views on the signings of big-name players in the J. League?

I think the J. League needs to have big-name foreign players, but we also have to care about the management of clubs. It also could be against our slogan to give kids dreams, but it’s very important to take serious consideration of the management of clubs.

In the short or medium term we need to consider bringing big names to the J. League, but big-name players require big money. So before bringing them, we need to make each club bigger. The bigger each club becomes, the more big names can play in Japan. The more big names play here, the more people come to the stadium and that makes clubs bigger.

It’s difficult to judge the right time to bring them. If we do it now, we could end up as an amateur league again!

In the future, however, it’s ideal if we have big name players, not only famous, though, but also those who have excellent skills. There were many that were big names but had poor skills in the past (laughs).

Regarding Beckham, how much does he make? I hear he makes 6 billion yen per year. That is the amount Urawa Reds (Japan’s best-supported club) makes a year. The biggest club in the Premier League will make 45 billion yen a year.