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October-December 1997

Football (Soccer)

Which sport do you think is the most popular among Japanese kids? Sumo? Baseball? Basketball? All of these sports are popular, but the number-one favorite among kids from elementary through high school is football.

A football boom started in Japan in 1968, when the Japanese team got a bronze medal in football at the Olympics in Mexico City. Japan didn't make it to the World Cup that year since it was eliminated in the Asian regional qualifying rounds. However, football matches in other countries began to be broadcast on Japanese TV, and when viewers got a chance to see the high-level international competition of World Cup, many of them were hooked. Football quickly grew in popularity.

The Football Association of Japan decided that the only way to produce a football team that could compete internationally was to create a professional league. In 1991 the Japan Professional Football League, known as the J. League, was formed. The league consisted of 10 teams, which began playing in 1993.

In October 1993, the Japanese national team nearly made it to the World Cup. But in the final qualifying match, just a step away from the World Cup, Japan's game against Iraq ended in a 2-2 tie, and the dream was shattered.

Four years later, in September 1997, Japan advanced to the final qualifying rounds for the 1998 World Cup. But the team had not been doing well in its matches, and many people doubted it would survive the finals. Then, on November 16, Japan beat Iran in the all-important match to determine the third Asian team for this year's World Cup--it scored the winning goal in overtime. And so, for the first time ever, Japan's national team is going to the World Cup.

Japan went wild over the amazing performance of its national team. Although the game against Iran was broadcast in Japan late at night, 47.9% of Japan's TV viewers were watching. Now that their team has advanced to the World Cup for the first time, the people of Japan have become more interested in football than ever.

One reason the J. League was formed was to give Japanese kids who play football something to dream about. To encourage the growth of young football players, all of the J. League teams sponsor youth teams at schools from the elementary through high school levels. They also sponsor invitational matches for players of different age groups.

The population of Japanese football lovers--both players and fans--is sure to keep on growing.

Photo: Youth team players dashing for the ball in a game of football. (Tokyo Metropolitan Government)