With yet another raft of Japanese players currently making their European club debuts, J. League fans could be forgiven for wondering what is left for them when the season starts next month.
Transfers are a fact of life for any league, but the rate of players leaving Japan in recent months has been exceptional. Akihiro Ienaga and Ryo Miyaichi both played their first games for Mallorca and Feyenoord, respectively, over the weekend, while Michihiro Yasuda, Shinji Okazaki, Tomoaki Makino and Hajime Hosogai are among those taking their first steps in foreign countries.
Factor in last summer’s departures, when five of Japan’s World Cup squad plus rising star Shinji Kagawa and Korean pair Chong Tese and Lee Jung Soo all left midseason, and the past six months have resembled nothing short of an exodus. But while deals struck in the wake of the world’s biggest tournament are inevitable, this winter’s moves have highlighted a new trend.
Of the aforementioned players joining European clubs this January, only Okazaki is an experienced international. Makino, Hosogai, Ienaga and Yasuda have only 16 caps between them, while Miyaichi is on loan in the Netherlands having joined Arsenal straight out of high school.
Where once it was only the established players who showed up on European radars, now the net is being cast wider. The success of Japanese players abroad has proved that the J. League is a fertile hunting ground, and the targets are getting younger.
This development is a double-edged sword for the Japanese game. Without question there are now far greater opportunities for young players, with the prospect of being noticed by a European club providing real stimulus to work hard and make the grade.
It is also of clear benefit to the national team. Yuto Nagatomo’s astonishing six-month rise from FC Tokyo to Internazionale is just the latest example of how much progress can be made by moving abroad, and Japan’s current FIFA ranking of 17 reflects more than a decade of steady movement overseas.
For the J. League, however, the rewards are scant. Tokyo fans are undoubtedly proud of what Nagatomo has achieved, but they would surely prefer to have had him available for last season’s unsuccessful fight against relegation.
Of course keeping hold of the best players forever is unrealistic, and Japan is not alone in losing out to the bigger salaries and competitive lure of the top leagues. But while clubs in countries like the Netherlands and Portugal ensure they are well compensated for the players they lose, J. League teams seem resigned to getting a raw deal.
Kagawa, it has been widely reported, cost Borussia Dortmund a mere $475,000. That his former club, Cerezo Osaka, did not have him tied to a contract that would guarantee a higher price suggests J. League clubs still have much to learn when dealing with the European heavyweights.
If Japan has won respect on the pitch, now it must demand the same in the boardroom.