2003 will be remembered as the year that Japan settled down after the excitement and euphoria of co-hosting the 2002 World Cup and matured into a footballing nation.
With many Japan-raised players now making their way in leagues across Europe - albeit with mixed success, Japanese football has much to congratulate itself for. On the pitch, standards continue to improve at J1, J2, JFL and youth levels.
The race for both the first and second stages of this year's J1 was both exciting and often the quality of football rivaled and exceeded that of the leagues in which those overseas-based players are playing in. The ever-powerful triumvate of Yokohama Marinos, Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata continued to play attractive, open football, but the contribution of `second-tier' J1 teams such as JEF United, Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka was massive and important for the future of the league. When J1 reverts to a one-stage format in 2005, it will need more than 3 teams vying for honours.
J2 this year was also breathtaking. Consider how far Albirex Niigata have progressed in an incredibly short space of time ? a few years ago they were playing in the JFL in front of paltry crowds of no more than a thousand. Now, the World Cup stadium in Niigata is a 42,000 sell-out each time, and these paying spectators were treated this year to displays which will have many of J1's big boys feeling nervous about traveling up to Hokuriku next year. How Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Consadole Sapporo struggled this year was also indicative of how the gap between the leagues is shrinking. Venforet Kofu ? J2 whipping boys only 18 months ago, were at one stage serious contenders for a J1 place. Their own support, who rescued the club from oblivion during its dark days, deserve this success and nobody would bet against them challenging again next season.
Japan's youth setup bodes very, very well for the future of football in Japan. The under-20 national side performed extremely well in the Middle East, and again the High School teams caused their senior counterparts all manner of problems in the Emperor's Cup. Funabashi Municipal High School's excellent effort in going out on penalties to double-stage winners Yokohama Marinos merits special praise.
Perhaps the low-point this year were the disappointing performances of the National Side. With so many players now based overseas, it's obvious that coach Zico is having problems gelling a side together. The fact that his team has become inconsistent, poorly-motivated and woefully lacking in killer instinct speaks volumes and it will surely not be very long before the JFA begin to seriously consider putting a fresh face in charge for the 2006 World Cup campaign.
As usual, however, Japanese football owes most of its progress this
year to the supporters. Urawa Reds' storied army of fanatics finally
got something back this year with a memorable 4-0 victory over Kashima
Antlers in this year's Nabisco Cup. Equally passionate were Vegalta
Sendai's own vociferous support and J1 will be poorer without them
next year. Spare a thought, however, for Sagan Tosu's small traveling
support. Enduring a miserable season, which left them far adrift at
the foot of J2 and saw them defeated in almost every part of Japan
from Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kanto to their home in Kyushu, their final
trip to Okinawa saw them dumped out of the Emperor's Cup to amateur
side Kariyushi. Let's hope they can rebuild and regather for 2004.