Football Features

A step toward World Cup glory? Spanish and Japanese football are building a special relationship

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 12:00, 27 November 2020

A 100-year vision. Can anyone really see that far into the future?  The Japanese Football Association (JFA) is making every effort to.

In 1992, a 100-year plan was set in motion with two simple goals: to have 100 professional clubs in Japan and to win the World Cup by 2092. Leaps and bounds have been made towards that aim since, the latest of which is the formalisation, on and off the field, of a relationship with Spain.

Spain itself only recently conquered the world in 2010, 97 years after the formation of its own football association (RFEF). The countries have more in common than you would assume.

For one, both are renowned for possession-based, technical football. This identity has been accentuated by the Spanish golden generation winning three major international tournaments in a row.

Japan’s relative abundance of playmakers, Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Takashi Inui to name a few, is a testament to their own pursuit of a similar style, even if both national teams find themselves slightly distanced from that style at present.

Off the field, La Liga and the J.League have extended their partnership until 2023; initially penned in 2017, the purpose of which is an amalgamation of expertise. Although Spanish football has been at the pinnacle of the sport for much of this millennium, there is substantial room for improvement in the politics-plagued administration of it.

The president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, is determined to drag everything surrounding the actual product into the 21st century, learning from the Japanese and their expert offering for a product which is nowhere near the same level of quality. These are crucial assets in competing with the bulging presence of the Premier League.

La Liga president Javier Tebas

This is one of several Japanese-Iberian deals in place, none more notable than E-commerce company Rakuten’s sponsorship of FC Barcelona in a mouth-watering shirt deal, which initially earned the Catalan club a minimum of £188m over four years.

Since 2009, Barcelona have opened four football academies across Japan and as of last year had 1,200 children being taught there. Add in a partnership with Japanese side Vissel Kobe (incidentally owned by Rakuten) and it’s evident that Barcelona have also sought to root themselves in Japan. Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Espanyol have followed with similar academy projects.

Who better to learn from than Andrés Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa? Three superstars who defined an era of football, internationally and at club level, all joined the J.League between 2018 and 2019. Only Iniesta is left after the latter two retired, but their presence was merely the headline act in a concerted attempt to incorporate, if not emulate, the style which made Barcelona and Spain so successful.

Once the jewel of Barcelona’s own academy, Sergi Samper has also since signed with Vissel Kobe, while Isaac Cuenca has followed others like Markel Susaeta and David Barral to the Pacific coast.

Spanish managers, likewise, have started to take their tactical knowledge to Japan. Now assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, until recently Juanma Lillo was also managing there. Some would contend Lillo is even more wedded to pressing and possession than Guardiola himself.

Lillo’s move made him the first ever Spanish manager in the J.League in 2018, soon followed by two of his compatriots, Lluís Carreras at Sagan Tosu and Miguel Ángel Lotina at Cerezo Osaka. Their appointments signal a clear intention to move towards a national approach which produced arguably the defining football hegemony between 2008 and 2018 (even if Lotina is not necessarily part of the same footballing ethos).

However, maybe the most consequential change is back in Europe. This season La Liga can count four Japanese players among its ranks. The most recent addition came via the Premier League, Yoshinori Muto swapping the bitter Tyneside breeze for the green of the Basque mountains. A tricky spell at Newcastle, where opportunities were scarce to the point of wastage, landed Muto at Eibar.

Once the subject of an offer from Chelsea, various managers including PSG’s Thomas Tuchel have raved about his intelligence, hard running and movement. A striker who brings so much more than goals, Newcastle was an unforeseen bump in a career which had only known ascent until then. This season will likely ascertain whether it has thrown Muto off track completely.

Fortunately for him, there is arguably no other manager so accomplished at extracting the very best from his players as Eibar’s José Luis Mendilibar. Usually either up front, on his own, or alongside target men Sergi Enrich or Kike, Eibar haven’t been free-scoring of late, but those around him benefit from Muto’s movement.

His adaptation will be aided by the presence of fellow countryman Inui, now entering his fifth season in La Liga. Something of a revelation since his arrival at the Basque club in 2015, under Mendilibar he has developed into one of the most dangerous players in the league. Technical, and an aesthetic addition to any match, he fits the Spanish archetype as much as the Japanese. Despite playing his best football in one of the league’s more direct teams, the speed at which the ball arrives to him at Eibar allows him more space to carve openings.

His year-long hiatus at Real Betis and then on loan at Alavés was by far his most disappointing since arriving in Spain, although his ardent supporters will protest that very few players in either side flourished that year. That faith is clear, typified by Eibar opting to bring him back. After several key departures from Eibar in the summer, much of the creative burden will fall on Inui this season.

Eibar’s humble nature should not cloud either Inui’s credentials as one of the better players in the league, nor his status as a star. Two goals and a string of excellent performances saw FourFourTwo name Inui as the eighth best player in the 2018 World Cup group stages. Only Mexico’s Hirving Lozano topped him on their list of breakout stars for the tournament.

Only behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, Eibar once became the third-most popular Spanish club in Japan. Inui’s popularity required a small provincial club to begin a Japanese-language Twitter account, later securing the club a Japanese sponsor, too. His arrival at Real Betis attracted over a hundred Japanese journalists to his presentation; all of which are tangible signs of the fresh attention La Liga is garnering in East Asia.

The other new Samurai Blue addition to the league is no less high profile, becoming only the second Japanese player to win the Premier League in 2016. Even if Shinji Okazaki spent last season in the Segunda División with Huesca, he was a driving force behind the club’s promotion challenge and eventual title victory.

He only scored 12 times, but goals have never been the measure for Okazaki. His presence has always been about interpreting space; he is a player who has educated all around him on the value of intensity.

During Leicester’s title-winning season, Okazaki participated in all but two of their league matches. Last year for Huesca he was involved in an impressive 37 league games despite celebrating his 34th birthday. Beyond goals, what is significant about Okazaki is his presence.

With Huesca second from bottom and craving more goals, he could face more competition for playing time from Wolves’ talented loanee Rafa Mir. Should Huesca’s survival bid succeed, his mind and legs will likely play an integral part.

Little doubt remains, though, if there is a brightly burning star from Japan, his name is Takefusa Kubo. If Tebas has marketing fantasies, Kubo walked right out of one.

Raised in the La Masia academy alongside Ansu Fati, he picked up a fluency in Spanish and the moniker ‘the Japanese Messi’ to go with his football education. After a Fifa ruling forced his exit from Barcelona, he spent three years in his homeland in Japan’s two most populous cities at FC Tokyo and Yokohama Marinos, raising his profile from niche football prodigy to national starlet.

Then he signed for Real Madrid, spending last season on loan at Real Mallorca, where his numbers were extraordinary. According to radio network Cadena SER (via AS), in Japan eight of the 10 most-watched La Liga matches last year were Mallorca fixtures. The islanders’ Twitter account had 30,000 new followers in the 48 hours after his signing, while Real Madrid’s followers in Japan increased by 83,000.

The most-watched fixture of all was Mallorca against Villarreal, whom Kubo would join on loan for this season. Perhaps his impact has been less than anticipated, playing just 37% of minutes under Unai Emery to date across all competitions.

It’s true that despite his raw talent, his ill-discipline positionally and sub-optimal decisions have caused headaches for Emery, who has railed against accelerating his development. Frustrating as the wait to see him earn more regular action may be, the holistic approach will serve him better over his career.

The excitement is also understandable. As much as he benefits La Liga financially, Kubo has a close control that few footballers do. Any Lionel Messi comparisons are grossly unfair, but Emery would compare him to David Silva just a few weeks later. A wriggle or a dart sets him off and driving towards goal. There’s a roguish magic to Kubo’s football, always seeking space between the lines and turning. The kind of magic that makes people tune in just to see him.

More and more Japanese footballers look at home in Spain, not just holding their own but standing out. The relationship between the two countries off the pitch is one that makes money, the one on the pitch makes sense. And in Kubo, Japan may have finally found the heir to Hidetoshi Nakata, a superstar, charismatic on the pitch and a celebrity off it.

For all the excellent players Japan have produced since, when Kubo eventually plays in the Real Madrid first team, it will be another milestone. Kubo’s feet can light a little bit more of the way as Japan peer forward towards their 100-year vision.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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