In early March in Milan, Italy, a suit-clad Yuto Nagatomo appeared in a corridor used for interviews where journalists are standing by. He looked at home wearing a necktie in his team's colors of blue and black.
Nagatomo's Inter Milan is a venerable club that was the world champion for the 2009-2010 season. Other Japanese players have played for European sides, but he is a first-team regular for a club at the pinnacle of the sport in terms of tradition, status and ability. He battles each day a level of pressure that he never experienced during his playing days in Japan, and is more aware than anyone of the differences between his powerful team and those of Japan's J.League.
"I feel pressure to a degree I've never felt before," Nagatomo said. "Still, there's a part of me somewhere that enjoys that. It's at times like these that you have the chance to develop. I want to keep a positive outlook."
Italian supporters are more fanatical than their Japanese counterparts, and after a loss they are known to sometimes unleash a barrage of insults at players when they spot them in the streets.
"The supporters are passionate too. If you're able to play in such a wonderful environment, I think it's important to be able to enjoy the pressure as much as possible," he said.
Commensurable with the intensified pressure, Nagatomo's salary rose by 500 percent when he moved from Japan to Italy. In his FC Tokyo days it topped 40 million yen ($494,000), but his move to Inter Milan saw it increase to 2 million euros (211.5 million yen, or $2.61 million).
He lives by himself in an upmarket area of the cutting-edge fashion center of Milan. A club chef accompanies him when he travels to away matches.
In addition to Nagatomo's base salary, his win bonuses are extremely generous.
"The prize money is on a different level," says his agent, Argentinian Robert Tsukuda. "If he wins a game in the UEFA Champions League, he receives around 4 million yen. No club in the J.League currently pays a win bonus over the 1 million yen mark."
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Since Japan's national team made the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Japanese players like Nagatomo have increasingly moved to Europe to ply their trade. There are currently more than 20 playing in the European leagues, especially in Germany.
When Japan played in the World Cup finals for the first time in France in 1998, all 22 squad members were affiliated with J.League teams. Four players in the lineup for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea were from overseas clubs, and this proportion increased to six at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. At the current rate, the majority of the Japanese national side at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be based in Europe.
This situation applies not only to Japan. At the World Cup in South Africa, 90 percent of first-team regulars for the two top South American nations, Brazil and Argentina, were affiliated with European clubs. People and money have been flowing into European soccer in increasing quantities.
In the last 10 years, the total revenue of the major European leagues has virtually doubled, whereas that of the J.League's Division 1 has increased by 140 percent. The most pressing issue for Japanese soccer is the slump in spectator numbers. The average attendance for a J1 match in the 2010 season was 15,797, a 17 percent drop compared to four years earlier.
"When the J.League was first established, Japan was an importer of talent," says J.League General Secretary Daisuke Nakanishi. "Stars like Zico and Pierre Littbarski came to play in Japan. However, the disparity between Japan and Europe has widened with the abolition of foreign player limits in European Union countries in 1995 and rising television broadcast rights fees due to the spread of satellite television. We are in an age of European overconcentration."
While the J.League has seen its best players leave for greener pastures, Japanese children have been captivated by the exploits of the foreign stars they see on television such as Lionel Messi. There are more and more cases of players heading straight to Europe after graduating from high school instead of going through the J.League, such as Ryo Miyaichi of England's Bolton Wanderers.
So, what path should Japan follow?
When this question was posed to Nakanishi, he began to carefully sketch a diagram on a notepad. National team rankings were drawn on a horizontal axis, while the vertical axis showed which domestic leagues import players from other countries or act as suppliers.
Spain, England, and Italy are at the top of the food chain, and their domestic leagues import many players. In Germany, a growing number of immigrants from Turkey and other nations are being selected for the national side.
France previously had a system where players were imported from Africa and later sold to other European leagues, but recently these leagues have been acquiring African players directly themselves.
Nakanishi says that imitating the French model is one way of invigorating the J.League. It could become a stage for Asian players to thrive, with the league developing them and subsequently selling them to clubs overseas.
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