As a spectacle, it was more like a rock concert than a soccer match.
Lasers strafed the crowd of 59,626 at Tokyo’s National Stadium, a bandana-wearing guitarist strutted across the pitch, flags cascaded down through the stands and an airship flew overhead, beaming pictures to homes across Japan and around the world.
When the smoke had cleared and the music had died down, however, a game was about to take place that would change the face of Japanese soccer forever. On May 15, 1993, Japan’s first-ever professional soccer league began with Yokohama Marinos beating Verdy Kawasaki 2-1 in the opening match.
The J. League had arrived.
“The atmosphere was completely different to anything we had experienced as amateurs,” former Marinos defender Masami Ihara told the Japan Times ahead of the J. League’s 20th anniversary this week. “Before the game started, there were lots of events to get the crowd excited. At the moment that I came out onto the pitch and saw the full stadium, I thought to myself that this is what I had been waiting for, that this is what playing in a pro league was like.
“It was a bit of a shock, but it made me so happy. It made me glad that I was a football player. When I went out onto the pitch, it was with the happiest feeling in the world.”
Before the J. League began, soccer in Japan commanded little attention among the general public. The national team had yet to qualify for the World Cup and the domestic league was an amateur affair, with company teams playing to small crowds as baseball and sumo dominated the sports bulletins.
The arrival of the J. League changed everything. Teams from the corporate Japan Soccer League were reborn as professional entities representing the towns in which they were based. Big-name players like Gary Lineker and Pierre Littbarski were recruited from around the world. And the name “J. League” was stamped in bold letters on public consciousness — a brand so aggressively marketed that by the time the first game came around, excitement had reached fever pitch.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” said former Verdy defender Tetsuji Hashiratani, Japan’s national team captain at the time who went on to make 72 international appearances. “I was so happy. My intention was to become a schoolteacher, but when it was announced that the J. League was coming and that I could become a pro player, I was overjoyed. It was such a shock.
“The first thing was that my salary changed. The facilities that we used improved and the pitches were so beautiful. Everything changed. It was completely different from how it was in the amateur days. I didn’t even have to do my own laundry!”
Not everyone, however, was ready to throw caution to the wind and embrace the change wholeheartedly.
“When I heard that there was going to be a professional football league in Japan, I wondered whether it would be successful,” said Ihara, Japan’s 1998 World Cup captain whose long-standing record of 122 international caps was finally overtaken by Yasuhito Endo last year. “On the one hand I was hopeful, but on the other I was anxious. I had no idea how it would work out until it started.
“Amateur football and professional football are two completely different worlds. If you are amateur, when your playing career finishes there is still a job for you within your company. You have that safety net. If you are professional, your contract runs from year to year. How far you can go in the game depends on what you put into it. For me, the biggest change was how to deal with it mentally. If you didn’t change your mentality, you couldn’t make it as a pro.”
In the event, Ihara’s fears proved unfounded. Fans flocked to stadiums as soccer became a cultural phenomenon, and flamboyant young players such as Verdy’s Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa became the new national icons.
“I think people got a little bored of baseball and sumo,” said Hashiratani. “I think the speed of football was what appealed to young people. In baseball and sumo there are breaks in the action, but that’s not the case in football. It’s constantly on the move.”
For Ihara, however, the community-specific nature of the J. League was just as important. Teams were forced to ditch their old corporate names in favor of ones that reflected the towns they now represented, giving fans something to identify with as a new grass-roots movement took hold.
“I think the fact that the teams represented their communities was crucial,” said Ihara. “Another factor was that the level of the national team was improving, and I think those two things came together to make football popular. Baseball teams in Japan didn’t always represent communities, so the idea to tie J. League teams to specific places was very effective. It made people feel like the teams were their own.
“Of course there were people who just came and went as the initial boom passed, but there were also people who came along and got hooked by the beauty of what they saw.”
For an aspiring player like 13-year-old Keiji Tamada, watching Hashiratani and Ihara battle it out on TV, the start of the J. League was a watershed moment.
“I was young, and it really made me want to become a professional player,” said Tamada, who went on to represent Japan 72 times including at two World Cups, and currently plays in the J. League with Nagoya Grampus. “Before then I did have ambitions of becoming a pro, but when the J. League started and football really became popular, it really brought it to the forefront of my mind.
“The player that made the biggest impression on me was Kazu. I loved watching him. His feints and the way he scored the important goals in the big games was just fantastic.”
Kazu may have led Verdy to the title in the J. League’s inaugural season, but he failed to hit the back of the net in the opening game. Instead it was Dutch striker Hennie Meijer who scored the first-ever goal in league history to put Verdy in front in the 19th minute, only for Brazilian Everton and Argentine Ramon Diaz to turn it around for Marinos in the second half.
“What I remember most about the game is the frustration of losing,” said Hashiratani. “I used to play for the team that became Marinos, and I didn’t want to lose to them.
“When the game started, all I was thinking about was winning. I was just concentrating on the match. The year before the J. League started we had a preseason Nabisco Cup tournament, and attendances started to go up then, so I wasn’t shocked by the number of fans at the opening game. I just played the way I always did.”
That the J. League still exists and thrives today is testament to the strength of its foundations, but the situation in 2013 is markedly different to the frenzy that greeted Hashiratani and Ihara 20 years ago.
“The technique and skill of the Japanese players have improved,” said Hashiratani, who currently manages Mito Hollyhock in the second division. “Their whole level has risen, but on the other hand, the level of the foreign players has gone down.
“At the start of the J. League, the foreign players who came were all top class, players like (Dragan) Stojkovic and Dunga, players who had played at the World Cup. That’s not the case now.”
Ihara, however, believes the biggest change has taken place far below the surface.
“The culture of football and of the clubs in their respective communities has deepened,” said the 45-year-old, who is now a coach at Kashiwa Reysol. “Football is much more established in Japan now. The biggest change in the last 20 years is football’s place in Japanese sports.
“Twenty years ago, baseball and sumo were very popular and football wasn’t, but the start of the J. League and the improvement of the national team have changed people’s attitudes to football. In terms of giving children something to dream about, the start of the J. League was very important.”
However the J. League evolves over the years to come, the impact of that opening extravaganza will never be forgotten. The event’s reach went beyond the world of sports to leave an imprint on Japan’s popular culture, and for those lucky enough to take part, the experience will stay with them forever.
“There were lots of ceremonies before the opening game, but we didn’t see anything because we were warming up at the time,” said Hashiratani. “But we could hear the fans, and I can remember that my heart was racing as we were waiting. I couldn’t wait to get started.
“When I got out onto the pitch and saw the crowd, I felt that my dream had come true. It really moved me. Then when the national anthem played, I was on the verge of tears.
“My name will always be there in history, and that makes me very happy. It makes me very glad that I played football.”