While the echoes of the 2002 World Cup are still ringing in our ears, Japanese soccer is making the first moves toward reform. At a meeting of its council and a new board of directors last Saturday, the Japan Football Association officially approved the appointment of a new executive lineup led by Mr. Saburo Kawabuchi as president.

Mr. Kawabuchi, promoted from vice president, has named a bold new personnel team. Symbolic of the direction in which he is moving is the choice of Mr. Takeo Hirata as managing director. Mr. Hirata, 42, previously directed the Petroleum and Natural Gas Division of the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy. He has advised the J. League from the preparatory stage and has served as a member of the JFA’s international projects. He is also said to have worked hard behind the scenes for Japan’s bid to host the 2002 World Cup. Although he has provided only lateral support so far, he has been involved in Japanese soccer for more than a decade. Mr. Hirata also has a good reputation in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as a person of action with outstanding planning skills.

The extraordinary personnel decision to bring on board talented human resources from the outside is likely to sweep away the cobwebs in Japanese soccer. Mr. Hirata does not have a sparkling career in sports, and he does not have a foothold at the core of the organization; he has completely bypassed the seniority system, which is so strong in the Japanese sporting world. But he does have youth and a rich international mind on his side. He speaks Portuguese and English and has good negotiating skills, which he has polished through study in the United States, work at the Japanese Embassy in Brazil and talks with oil-producing countries.

The 2002 World Cup, cohosted with the Republic of Korea, was a resounding success, as the Japanese national team put on an exciting performance to reach the final 16. Many Japanese people came away with a passion for soccer for the first time. The J. League, which forms the base of the national team, is entering its 10th season. These favorable conditions must have convinced Mr. Kawabuchi that there was no time like the present for change. The annual budget of the JFA, backed by income from sponsors, exceeds 10 billion yen, and international exchange is becoming increasingly important. The JFA must secure a firm foothold within the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA. There are even hopes that sometime in the future Mr. Hirata might become a candidate for a place on FIFA’s board of directors.

As chairman of the J. League, Mr. Kawabuchi has been promoting the “J-League 100-year concept.” The idea is to break away from the old framework of school sports and company sports and create a new sporting culture in Japan with roots in the community. Now is a good chance to move firmly ahead toward the realization of that goal. The sudden appointment of a career bureaucrat to the JFA lineup clearly takes into account these circumstances. Mr. Kawabuchi obviously wants the organization to be managed in a flexible way, without being bound by narrow customs and fixed ideas.

The appointment of Mr. Zico as the new national team coach occurred with lightning speed, too. Mr. Zico has been involved in Japanese soccer for more than a decade as a player with Sumitomo Metal Kashima and Kashima Antlers and as the general manager of Kashima Antlers. Compared with the fiery Philippe Troussier, who repeatedly came into conflict with the JFA and Japanese culture in general, it should be much easier for Mr. Zico and others to reach mutual understanding. There are those who point out that although Mr. Zico had a magnificent playing career and has worked as an adviser to the Brazilian national side and as general manager of Kashima Antlers, he has no actual experience as a manager. There is certainly a tinge of uncertainty here, but there is also no doubt that Mr. Zico will be an inspiring help as Japan seeks to do even better at the next World Cup in Germany in four years time.

Mr. Kawabuchi’s new lineup, including his designation of a successor as J. League chairman, has gone as planned and gotten off to a smooth start. This is a revolutionary move in the Japanese sporting world, where most leaders are of the consensus type. There will certainly be doubts and resistance to the dramatic changes. Precisely for this reason, we hope that Japanese soccer circles will make even further efforts toward cooperation in meeting challenges. No doubt the leaders themselves are aware of the dangers, but they must at all cost avoid a situation in which highhandedness and hotheadedness become the focus of attention. We hope that they will unite to promote reform in a spirit of creating a new sporting culture.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.