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While J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai will perhaps be best remembered for masterminding the league’s blockbuster decade-long, $2 billion domestic broadcasting deal with sports streaming service DAZN, he will also leave in 2022 having overseen one of the league’s largest periods of expansion and shifts in player development.

Since Murai’s tenure began in the winter of 2014, the third-division J3 League has welcomed six clubs from the Japan Football League. Even more are waiting in the wings, some with J3 licenses and others with Hundred Year Club Status, the first required step to join the J. League.

In that period, a record number of Japanese players have left for European clubs — leaving the J. League at times bereft of homegrown star power as former national team stars such as Kengo Nakamura begin to retire.

Speaking to The Japan Times shortly before the conclusion of the 2020 season, Murai discussed the development and expansion for the league’s lower divisions as well as the league’s role in a rapidly changing Samurai Blue.

Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres have been big successes for the J. League’s marketing efforts, but have they raised the level of play?

A soccer team has 11 players, so Iniesta can’t dramatically change the level of play by himself. Yet looking at the level of competition in this year’s Asian Champions League, Iniesta’s skills are a cut above the rest and he made a huge contribution to Vissel Kobe’s campaign.

It’s going to take time, but Vissel has a plan to improve their club through the arrival of players of Iniesta’s caliber, and the teams that play Vissel will also be inspired to level up. It’s best not to look at such changes in the short term.

Given their contributions in recent years, will the league work to bring over more Asian players, especially to the J2 and J3?

In terms of our business strategy (in Asia), the lack of a significant time difference helps us. The Levain Cup has been broadcast across Asia, and there’s a large population of soccer fans in the region. There’s a lot of countries experiencing very strong economic growth, and there are strong merits to Japan showing leadership in Asia. In these last few years we’ve focused a lot of our energies in the region.

As a result, in Thailand we’ve even had promotional wrappings on trains. In terms of national interest in the J. League, we aren’t even hitting 30% in Japan. But in Thailand we’re at nearly 50%. We now understand that foreign players appearing in the league can have a dramatic effect (on the league’s visibility) and we want to see that happen more.

An elevated train in Bangkok promotes the J. League during a late 2020 advertising campaign. National interest in the J. League is at 50% in Thailand, more than the 30% reported in Japan. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE
An elevated train in Bangkok promotes the J. League during a late 2020 advertising campaign. National interest in the J. League is at 50% in Thailand, more than the 30% reported in Japan. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE

It might be difficult for players to start directly in the J1, but there’s a lot of Asian players who could play in the J2 or J3. In order to invite players from overseas we have to prepare things like interpreters and provide them with everything they need to live in Japan. There’s a lot of costs involved, and J3 clubs may not have those sorts of resources. But it makes a lot of sense for J2 clubs to cooperate with those countries and bring in players who could one day make it in the J1.

(Right now) we have to focus on their top class of players, who end up at J1 clubs. But in the near future we want to get the J2 or J3-level of players and develop them, so that back home they can get into the national team picture, or debut in the J1. By doing this we can deepen our international relationships.

What are the future plans for expanding the J3?

After the 2020 season Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka’s U-23 teams will be leaving the J3, and we’re welcoming Tegevajaro Miyazaki as our 57th club.

We’ve also started Project DNA to help develop the league, and we’re launching the Elite League to give younger players more game time. Because of (the U-23 teams) leaving we’ll have 15 clubs in the J3 next year.

In the future, we want to expand the J3 to 20 teams, and after that we’ll establish promotion and relegation with the (fourth-tier) Japan Football League. Our current plan is for the J1 to be at 18, the J2 to be at 22, and the J3 to be at 20 clubs. The J3 will expand, but it won’t keep expanding. And we’re not envisioning a J4.

Has a rebalancing of the J2 and J3 been considered?

We can’t commit to anything for the near future. In the past, you could join the J3 without having stadium lighting, so you couldn’t have have night games during the summer. We want to reduce the number of summer day games, so we can’t go up to 22 teams in the J3. The J2’s absolute limit is 22 — If a typhoon hits or something else happens (to force postponements), we don’t have the room to adjust the schedule.

J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai expects the league's third division to expand to 20 clubs. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE
J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai expects the league’s third division to expand to 20 clubs. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE

This year marked the Samurai Blue’s first all-Europe-based squad due to the coronavirus, and Japan’s World Cup squad has featured fewer and fewer J. League players since 1998.

What really struck me about the 2018 World Cup in Russia was looking at champion France’s lineups from the start of the tournament. The first game of the group stage is very important. Seventy percent of teams that win their opening game advance to the round of 16. If you lose, you generally won’t make it. The one exception in 2018 was Colombia, who lost to Japan in their opener.

I analyzed the players that each country used in its starting lineup in that first game. France only had one starter from their domestic league — Kylian Mbappe, the amazing 19-year-old at Paris Saint-Germain. Everyone else was playing outside of France, whether in the Premier League or Bundesliga. French players believe that if they want to show off their true strength they have to play in the best leagues, because that’s how they can improve their skills.

The level in Japan is still comparatively low, so we want players to go to Europe and join clubs that are regularly appearing in the knockout stage of the Champions League. The era of just being happy if players go overseas is over. If you count the number of Japanese players who are playing overseas at top-class clubs, we’re still a long way away. Japan has reached the stage where we want those players to improve at top-level clubs.

On the other hand, while Makoto Hasebe hasn’t come back to Japan, former J. Leaguers like him who have become team captains in Europe and been selected for their league’s Best XI are starting to appear. For example, Atsuto Uchida came back to Kashima Antlers after being a regular in Schalke.

It’s about not just sending players to Europe, but after 28 years of the league we’re at a point where those players can start coming back. I think it’s good for young players to go to Europe, but we’d also welcome veteran players bringing their experience and know-how back to Japan. We want them to share the global standard of play with younger players.

Now-retired defender Atsuto Uchida, who made his professional debut with Kashima Antlers in 2006, returned to the club in 2018 after eight years in Germany. | REUTERS
Now-retired defender Atsuto Uchida, who made his professional debut with Kashima Antlers in 2006, returned to the club in 2018 after eight years in Germany. | REUTERS

It feels like the era of being able to see national team players in the J.League is ending.

I mentioned Mbappe earlier, but we’re in an era where at 19 you can appear in the World Cup final. The J.League’s direction is changing so that we can develop and produce more young players like Takefusa Kubo who are capable of excelling at the global level.

The J. League is raising players who are ready to take on the world in their teens. When those players do well overseas, and it’s known that we have such young players playing here, it makes our league look more attractive. It’s important for us to become a league the world is paying attention to.

As for solving this problem, players will leave. But it’s about transitioning from one to the next and becoming a league that can constantly create those sorts of players. In order to avoid a situation where these talented young players leave and then nobody’s left in Japan, we’ve launched initiatives such as Project DNA to ensure that we’re still producing good players and still getting attention from overseas.

This is the second part in a three-part series.

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