Football's popularity zoomed after the Japanese national team reached the quarterfinals at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo and also after it won the bronze medal at the Mexico City Games in 1968. Suddenly, schools began setting up football teams, and youth leagues sprouted up everywhere. Football emerged as a popular amateur sport, particularly among young people.
But it wasn't until professional football made its debut in 1993 that the sport really took off. The establishment of the J. League propelled football even past baseball as the favorite sport among male middle school students, according to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Another big boost came when the world's ruling football body selected Japan to co-host the 2002 World Cup with the Republic of Korea. The players had been getting better with more exposure to world-class competition, and they earned the nation's first-ever berth in the World Cup finals -- held in 1998 in France. In 1998 Japan lost all three games in the preliminary league and was not able to advance to the knockout stage.
At the 2002 World Cup Korea-Japan, however, the Japanese side finished the first round with two wins and one draw, winning its group and advancing to the final round, where it was defeated by Turkey. The first World Cup in Asia impressed and excited soccer fans around the world. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Japan won two and lost one of its games in its group, progressing to the knock-out stage of the tournament. Japan succeeded in reaching the final 16, when it was defeated by Paraguay on penalties. In 2011, the "Nadeshiko Japan" women's national team won the FIFA Women's World Cup. In the 2012 London Olympics, the team won the silver for the first medal in Japan's female Olympic soccer history. The Japanese people were encouraged by this victory, and the popularity of women's soccer is growing.
Photo:Tokyo Metropolitan Government