Japan's European Wonder

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HANNAH BEECH Perugia, ItalyIt is an irony particularly sobering to Japan that its ailing soccer league could be saved by someone who doesn't even play on Japanese soil. But Hidetoshi Nakata, slick, surly and so sure-footed that he merited words of respect from Brazil's former national coach, may be just what the J.League needs.The 21-year-old midfielder was one of the few stars of Japan's otherwise unimpressive World Cup debut last June. His dazzling passes and disciplined play attracted scouts across Europe, and the ace playmaker soon packed up his cleats for Perugia, a club in Italy's top-notch Serie A league. A few dozen jet-lagged Japanese journalists held their breath as ex-J.Leaguer Nakata took to the field in September, a cocky, laconic presence in a field of bigger men. Any worry for their countryman was quickly dispelled. With characteristic nonchalance, Nakata dribbled past Serie A veterans and drove in two goals against defending champs Juventus, immediately placing him among the league's top scorers. It was an amazing moment to be Japanese, says Yosuke Kubota, a 24-year-old soccer groupie who joined some 200 other flag-waving Japanese at the midfielder's European debut. When Nakata plays, he has the hopes of everyone in Japan riding on his shoulders.Not that Nakata appreciates the devotion. I try to play well because that's my job, says the 1997 Asian Player of the Year. It's what I'm paid to do. It's not something I do for my country. That attitude helps explain why Nakata no longer plays in Japan. Japan's soccer elders routinely criticize Nakata for his lack of respect and maverick behavior. Soccer should be free of the hierarchy that constrains the rest of Japan, Nakata snaps back. That's why I wanted to play in Europe. PAGE 1  |  
Surprisingly, J.League officials support Nakata's decision to defect. They acknowledge that the midfielder's soccer skills would atrophy if he continued to play in Japan. And they hope Nakata's impressive start in Europe will spark better play back in Japan and boost the sport's sagging popularity. If a J.Leaguer succeeds playing in the international field, says league chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, the level of our league will go up.Japan's professional soccer league kicked off in 1993 to roaring crowds, and soccer topped venerable baseball as the most popular high-school sport just three years later. But the initial euphoria has worn off. Japanese weary of expensive overseas imports and inexperienced locals no longer pack the stands. Average stadium attendance peaked in 1994 at 19,600 but has fallen to just 11,800 this season. Corporations that spent millions to start up the league are struggling as the nation's recession cuts into their earnings. Last month, Yokohama's two teams, the Marinos and the Flugels, announced plans to merge after the Flugels were battered by losses of more than $8.5 million a year. And soccer's mainstay young fans are beginning to find the J.League's mechanical play a little dull. Technically, the Japanese are superb, says Nick Mould, chief executive of AFC Marketing, a sports-marketing firm that handles Asian soccer competitions. But the system stymies individual expression, which means that players lack the spirit or mental strength of a Brazil. Which is why Nakata--with his dyed coppery hair, movie-star stubble and distaste for his country's hair-bound hierarchy--stood out in Japan. Says Mould: Nakata has the arrogance and confidence that makes a world-class player.Nakata's youthful brashness, Armani shades and taste for spaghetti play well in Perugia, where locals have affectionately dubbed him little Buddha, a name formerly reserved for soccer great Roberto Baggio. Given Nakata's spectacular Italian debut, Japan national coach Philippe Troussier expects to see more Japanese exports. If Nakata is successful, he says, it will encourage other clubs in other countries to look at Japan and enable players to follow him. Waiting in the wings are explosive teenage midfielder Shinji Ono and striker Shoji Jo, 23, who is rumored to be negotiating a contract to play in Spain. Masakiyo Maezono, 24, is already making waves as the only Japanese in Brazilian first division soccer, where in his debut game three weeks ago he scored a goal for Santos, Pele's old team. The J.League could well become a training ground for Nakata-wannabes eager to leapfrog to the world's best soccer clubs. Perugia managing director Alessandro Gaucci, who picked up Nakata for a cool $3.5 million, doesn't rule out buying a compatriot to keep Nakata company. We are looking to recruit more talent from Japan, says Gaucci. Maybe Perugia can be a 'Little Tokyo' for Japanese footballers.Back in the real Tokyo, dozens of fans pack the sports bars to watch live broadcasts of Perugia's games. Despite a disappointing World Cup and the recession, the Japanese definitely have the football bug, says sports-marketer Mould. Someone like Nakata can really get the J.League going again by giving Japanese youth someone to aspire to. By the time the nation co-hosts the 2002 World Cup, top Japanese players may even be treading the path to glory on their home turf.  |  2