Saburo Kawabuchi has never been one to mince words.
So take it from the former Japan Football Association president and the inaugural J. League chairman, the current Japan team are the best in the nation’s history.
“This team is strong, make no mistake,” Kawabuchi said in an interview with Kyodo News ahead of Thursday’s squad announcement for the March 26 World Cup qualifier away to Jordan. “I think the team in Germany were more talented than the team in South Africa.”
“But the team we’ve got right now is the best ever. And that’s because our best players are in Europe and performing there. If they had all stayed in the J. League, the team wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.”
“When our athletes go abroad, people talk about a hollowing out or a flooding of talent, but it doesn’t apply in soccer. The more they go, the better, because we’ve got more and more young players coming up to take their place.”
The J. League is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but not even Kawabuchi, now the JFA’s senior adviser, could predict the success Japanese soccer is currently enjoying at both club and national team levels.
Over the last two decades, the J. League ballooned from 10 teams to 40, 18 in the top flight — which is the sixth best attended league in the world— and 22 in the second division. A third tier — J3 — is on the way next year.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s national side won Japan a record fourth Asian Cup two years ago, and are on the brink of qualification for Brazil. Victory over Jordan will send Japan to their fifth consecutive World Cup, a feat which may have seemed unimaginable when the J. League was launched in 1993.
“The rate of development of Japanese football has far exceeded my expectations and things are going well,” said the man known in Japanese football circles as “Captain.” “But it doesn’t mean I’m completely happy with everything. The J. League can be better. The quality of your average match needs to be better.”
“Nowadays, you can watch any game from any of the top European leagues whenever you want. If that’s what you’re accustomed to, then that’s the quality you’re going to expect. And it’s the difference between now and 20 years ago; footballers have a higher standard to live up to. But it’s a good thing, something we should appreciate.”
“Of the famous players, (Kazuyoshi Miura) was the first one to go to Europe after the J-League started but even he struggled. Now, you’ve got 20 or so players at national team level who are in the best leagues in Europe. I think that reflects the growth of the J-League over the years.”
Of the players based overseas, Kawabuchi is counting on none other than Keisuke Honda, not Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa nor Gamba Osaka’s Japan centurion Yasuhito Endo who is widely regarded as the brains of Zaccheroni’s team.
For all his recognition, Honda has been painted by some as being aloof, much in the color of a former Japan midfielder, Hidetoshi Nakata. Yet while Kawabuchi says the two are similar for their excellence on the pitch, they are anything but alike away from the field.
“There’s so much to his game,” Kawabuchi said of Honda. “He’s physically strong, especially his core strength. In the media, he’s played up as somewhat of a lone wolf but he’s absolutely loved by his teammates and that goes a long way. That’s the biggest difference between him and Hide.”
“Hide also led by example, had all the necessary tools as a footballer and was just so mentally tough. Nakata was a fantastic player in his own right, but he wasn’t the type you could just plop down next to eat a meal and have a casual chat with. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but that’s just how he was. Honda isn’t like that.”
“This team can still be effective without Honda, but there’s no question he is the pillar of the team. Endo, Kagawa are good players but they don’t quite bring what Honda brings.”
In terms of playing style, Kawabuchi believes Japan’s role model should be Barcelona, who hauled in 14 pieces of silverware under Pep Guardiola from 2008 to 2011.
“I personally think the brand of football Barcelona are playing is the way Japan should go. The possibility is there,” he says. “I don’t think Brazil could play that way because of all the characters and individualism on their team; they’re just too different a type.”
“I think Japan are headed in that direction. We have never had this much potential at every position. The team right now offers hope for the World Cup in Brazil, that they might actually achieve something significant.”
“There’s no guarantee this team will get past the last 16, because that’s just football. But they definitely give you something to look forward to, that’s for sure.”