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book review

'Between The Lines': The emergence of Japanese soccer onto the world stage

By Fred Varcoe

"Between The Lines" is a rare English-language book on Japanese soccer by Sean Carroll, an Englishman who’s been following the game here for 15 years. The book tries to put into context Japan’s current position in the soccer world and how it got there.

Like Japan’s rugby team, the men’s national soccer team has grown in skill and experience in recent decades, while the women’s national team is a major player in what is still a fairly young global game. Carroll’s take is that the 2010 FIFA World Cup marked a major change in the outlook and fortunes of the men’s national team. And obviously the women winning the 2011 World Cup in the year of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was a huge event.

Sean Carroll

But Carroll mainly writes about the men’s game and its journey from 2010 when Japan’s team was suffering from a crisis of confidence – and terrible results – going into the World Cup in South Africa: “Despite some disastrous preparations – including embarrassment with a full strength selection at the East Asian Cup, defeats and no goals in their last two send-off games, and the suggestion that manager Takeshi Okada had offered to resign on the eve of the tournament – the team ultimately went on to progress from the group stage at an overseas World Cup for the first time. Japan showed in 2010 that football had undoubtedly come of age in the country, with the core of that squad forcing the gates open and proving that Japanese players had what it took to perform at the very highest level by moving to, succeeding in, and, most importantly of all, staying in Europe.”

Japan had first qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in 1998 and subsequently reached the Round of 16 when it co-hosted the World Cup in 2002. It also had Europe-based players and genuine stars such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, but Carroll says that the transformation in South Africa – which, an informed source once told me, was entirely player-driven – made believers of the doubters, whether that was the players themselves or coaches in Europe, which is usually the ultimate destination for soccer players who want to make it into the big time.

The decade following South Africa saw Japanese players snapped up by European clubs, with most holding their own and a couple – Makoto Hasebe and Maya Yoshida – even captaining major European soccer teams. While foreign clubs are getting accustomed to Japanese players, the more important element was Japanese players getting used to foreign clubs, customs and coaches. While the 2010 World Cup was an interesting punctuation mark in the book of Japanese soccer, the key for Japanese soccer was for players to go to the right clubs in Europe and understand what was required of them. 

All too often, there were rumors that clubs were buying Japanese players as a marketing tool, to sell shirts and rake in money from TV rights. And you have to wonder what someone like Junichi Inamoto was doing at Arsenal when he was never at that level. Agents were dumping players on clubs who were happy to play along and sell some shirts. The performance of the player was often immaterial. He had a shirt number; that was enough. But some great J.League players just couldn't cut it overseas.

“How well a player acquits themselves in the early stage of the adaptation process can play a large part in determining whether they can go on to achieve success in a foreign country, and the sooner they can adjust to the new environment, language, and approach to football the more chance they have of performing well," Carroll says."If positive impressions aren't made on their new teammates, coaches, and supporters early on it can be hard to make up that lost ground, and as well as holding that player back it can also create a negative image of football in their country at large and limit future opportunities for others.”

Carroll’s initial ambition was to compare Japanese and English soccer, but there probably wasn’t much to compare 15 years ago. He thought about introducing Japanese soccer to people in England, but British publishers wanted “wacky Japan/ foreigner in Japan” content, so he had to rethink his project. For better or worse, he found a Japanese publisher and the book initially came out in Japanese last year. 

This raises a bit of a red flag. Japanese publishers don’t want writers to criticize Japan and Carroll makes some telling points in the book about the poor approach of the Japanese media to sports coverage, citing the “whitewashing of events” in games such as foul play, refereeing errors and own goals (players who score own goals are never named, unlike in Europe). TV commentators in Japan are notorious for their bland irrelevancies and glossing over key events that don’t fit the “isn’t this great” narrative. Apart from its immaturity, Carroll points out that such attitudes hinder the development of the game.

“By not discussing the bad along with the good you prevent development, in football or anything else," he says. "This is an adult, professional environment and in order for improvements to be made it is counter-productive to ignore problems. It means those watching in Japan end up consuming a watered-down rose-tinted version of the game, in which only positive actions on the pitch are picked up on and anything unsavory or faulty is airbrushed out of the picture.”

Carroll’s best points are strangely made at the end of the book, but perhaps that is the way criticism-shy publishers want it. Some judicious editing would have helped the book have more impact. There’s also the period covered. The 2010 World Cup is his jumping off point and little is said about major events in Japanese soccer before that time, which to someone who covered the game from before the J.League, seems like a fairly large omission. But Carroll is looking forward rather than backwards.

“As for Japanese football, I genuinely think it can keep going from strength to strength,” he says. The J.League is in a great position to build on the solid roots it has laid down over the last 30 years, and from what I’ve seen at stadiums around the country it really looks like the connections between clubs and their fans are incredibly healthy, all the way down (for the most part) to J3.”

“For the national team, while achieving the aim of progressing beyond the Round of 16 at the World Cup is of course an important hurdle to overcome, I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all and instead think it’s more important that players keep achieving success in the best leagues in Europe and that when they come together for the Samurai Blue they continue to believe that they belong on the same stage as the teams they’re playing against. If they do that, then the rest will follow.”

"Between The Lines," by Sean Carroll, is published by Backheel Media Limited.

© Japan Today

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Like Rugby football Japan is a powerhouse in waiting. I have seen it with Japans dominance in the WBC.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Like Rugby football Japan is a powerhouse in waiting. I have seen it with Japans dominance in the WBC.

Well argued. Japan is young and hungry for world success - millions and millions of kids are now seeing the success Japanese players are having in Europe, and they know they are good enough for the world stage - not just there to sell shirts.

If Japanese can dominate world baseball, I see no reason they can't boss the world in football too - with the millions of young kids coming through.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Japan definitely has some world class players, the World Cup is not the be all and end all, but Japan have a habit of slipping up against the sides they are supposed to beat-the seem to play better as underdogs.

international teams are always missing one piece, with Japan it’s a striker who can be the main man, a world class no 9, if Japan had that, we’re talking a team that could get to wc semi finals, until then it’s best 8 imo. I’m confident mitoma will be the most expensive Japanese transfer in history within the next two years though..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Ahhh.... I rember some years ago, there were people saying "Japan will never be a powerhouse in soccer, because....(this and that)".

Are those guys eating their spaked shoes just yet?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If Japanese can dominate world baseball, I see no reason they can't boss the world in football too - with the millions of young kids coming through

Nah. Dominating a sport played seriously by a handful of countries isn’t the same as dominating world football. This is a much taller order.

There may be a freak generation of superstars but I wouldn’t bank on it. I’d like to see Japan produce a truly world class talent like a Messi, Ronaldo, or Mbappe but they haven’t in 30 years of pro football. I’d still rate Nakata as the best they’ve produced.

Anyway, hope to see Japanese football thrive.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

with the millions of young kids coming through.

This is rather fanciful, as per Japan Football Association figures, the number of high- schoolers playing the sport in 2021 was as follows:


2 ( +2 / -0 )

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