Soccer / J. League

J. League establishes global ambassador program to promote league overseas

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

The J. League will draw from its considerable network of foreign former players under a new global ambassador program intended to promote the competition overseas.

Two of the four ambassadors, former Kashima Antlers legend Zico and former Urawa Reds player and manager Guido Buchwald, joined league chairman Mitsuo Murai on Thursday to discuss the program in a news conference at JFA House in downtown Tokyo.

Introducing the pair, Murai noted that as of the end of the 2017 season over 1,200 foreign players had belonged to J. League clubs, including 362 with international experience and 21 World Cup winners.

“With so many foreigners having participated in the J. League, I thought it would be possible to create a network to promote the league overseas,” said Murai. “The J. League is being distributed in 150 countries, and we hope we can help (former) players share the league with fans in their countries.”

Brazilian Zico is perhaps one of the most well-known former J. Leaguers in South America, having spearheaded Kashima Antlers’ professional conversion at the dawn of the J. League and later gone on to manage Japan’s national team at the 2006 World Cup.

The 66-year-old, whose statue stands outside Kashima Stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture, returned to the club last year as a technical director.

“It’s a very momentous thing to be a global ambassador,” said Zico. “The J. League is very important to me so I will do whatever I can.”

Buchwald, the former Stuttgart man who played for Urawa Reds from 1994 to 1997, later managed the team for two seasons and led the Saitama side to its first J. League championship in 2006.

“The J. League needs to share itself with the world,” the former defender insisted. “In Ulsan there were only 3-4,000 people (at Wednesday’s Asian Champions League game between Ulsan Hyundai and Urawa). When you think about how many fans were in Urawa for last week’s home leg (20,741), there’s clearly more passion for the game in Japan and foreign players can perform in that kind of environment.”

Asked about the recent trend of star foreign talent coming to the Japan, both ambassadors urged J. League clubs to consider the reasons behind signing players from overseas.

“I want to ask the J. League not to make the same mistake China made,” said Buchwald. “They called over European stars to play and they did. But what was (the goal)? They need to think about what they want players to accomplish.”

The point was not lost upon Zico, whose strict attitude toward training, diet and even pitch maintenance helped develop Kashima into the powerhouse that would become Japan’s most successful club.

“When I was a player the J. League had just started, so they needed to bring in lots of foreigners to help advance the league,” said Zico. “Now there are a lot of Brazilians but they play a different role.

“I agree with Mr. Buchwald, you can’t just bring in foreigners for the sake of playing. Those players are sharing the space with talented young Japanese players and shouldn’t take away playing opportunities from them.”

Also participating as global ambassadors will be former Brazil head coach Dunga, who spent four years with Jubilo Iwata, and South Korea’s Hong Myung-bo, who played for Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare) and Kashiwa Reysol. The league announced its intent to appoint other former legends as ambassadors in the future, as well as to create a Chinese-language portal.