While Okinawa Prefecture has long been the training home for Japanese professional baseball, most J.League soccer teams opt for colder winter locales farther north.
Now, the prefecture is looking to grow a crop of grass specialists who can create the perfect pitch and lure J.League and other professional teams from overseas. If these top soccer teams locate their training camps to the southernmost prefecture, the popular sport could help bolster off-season tourism.
However, the prefecture’s inability to provide a lush winter pitch is a key factor behind teams declining to train there, acknowledged Atsushi Yamashiro, an official with the prefectural government’s sports promotion section, who has been tasked with luring soccer teams to relocate their camps there.
“The main obstacle has always been the grass pitches,” Yamashiro said. “Compared with baseball, soccer requires a higher level of turf conditioning that determines how lush it is and how smoothly a soccer ball rolls across it.”
For example, 10 of the 12 Japanese professional baseball teams held their training camps in Okinawa early this year. By comparison, the subtropical prefecture attracted only five of the 40 J.League teams before the current season kicked off in the spring. Most J.League teams train in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, farther north.
In inauguration of the program in late September, Daiichi Hirata, head of the Okinawa prefectural government’s culture, tourism and sports division, emphasized the importance of offering good grass pitches to attract top-flight soccer teams.
“No matter how good Okinawa’s training facilities and hotels are, professional athletes would not choose to come here if the quality of our grass pitches is poor,” he said. “They don’t want to get injured.”
Five trainees will be taught the ABCs of grass and techniques to create high-quality turf over the two-year program.
The prefectural government has set aside 30 million yen ($375,000) for the program for the current fiscal year. Five more trainees are expected to join them next year.
It's all part of the prefecture's efforts to woo training camps for professional sports leagues, much as Florida and Arizona have done in the United States for Major League Baseball. The prefecture has renovated sports facilities together with local government as part of that effort.
Few such facilities, however, offer the well-groomed winter grass pitches that professional soccer players demand.
Takayuki Nagai, an official who handles training sessions with Sagan Tosu, a J1 team, said Okinawa’s training facilities need more work to perfect the condition of their turf.
“We have nothing to complain about with the surroundings and facilities,” said Nagai, whose team trained in the prefecture earlier this year, for the first time in 11 years. “Our only request is for a winter grass pitch.”
Summer grass that can withstand the high summer heat and humidity of Okinawa thins out and withers in the winter, creating a hard and bumpy surface.
That makes it harder for soccer players to control the ball as they try to prepare under the same lush turf conditions they'll play on in their upcoming seasons.
Toyo Maintenance Co. in Tokyo, which manages the National Stadium in the capital, is commissioned to conduct the Okinawa program, with the five trainees learning on the job as contract workers.
Ryuta Uechi, a 25-year-old trainee, said he feels great responsibility for his job because a good turf helps reduce players’ injuries.
Takao Yamada, president of Toyo Maintenance, said tending to a grass pitch requires the use of all five senses.
“You need to know how it feels to walk on the grass in your bare feet,” Yamada said. “You may even sometimes put grass in your mouth. I would like them to gain a basic knowledge first to prepare them for becoming a specialist.”
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