Traveling overseas brought me to the realization that soccer is our world's universal language. Bringing up the name of a famous player from the country you are visiting can narrow the distance between you and the locals, and extend a conversation in a halting foreign language.
All you need to play the sport is a ball, so economic inequality does not have a bearing on soccer ability. Unlike golf, tennis or skiing, a young boy chasing a ball barefooted in the slums of Brazil can dream of becoming a millionaire.
It is interesting to note that even the United States, a major economic and global political superpower with a population of 300 million that is a medal machine at the Olympics, could not beat Slovenia, a nation of 2 million, at the 2010 World Cup finals.
At present, the global soccer industry revolves around Europe. Soaring player salaries and transfer fees are placing a burden on club management, and a major influx of foreign capital is disrupting established orders.
"Protect European football culture. Return to realistic management."
This plea by Union of European Football Associations President Michel Platini reflects the growing sense of crisis.
On March 8 in Manchester, England, I was overwhelmed by what I saw the moment I stepped off the main street into a square. It was overflowing with 7,000 red-and-white vertically striped shirt-wearing supporters of long-established Spanish club Athletic Bilbao, who had made the journey from the ethnically proud Basque region to support their team against Manchester United.
On days when cup matches between clubs of different nationalities take place, crowds of supporters donning the "formal attire" of replica shirts converge like a mass migration on cities hosting the games. The same spectacle can be seen on regular weekends in various countries. This is the traditional culture with deep ties to local communities that Platini is striving to save.
But what of Japan? National team players have been snapped up by European clubs in quick succession, and young fans look up to foreign stars such as Lionel Messi. The J.League has plateaued in terms of television broadcast revenue and attendance. More clubs are struggling with income shortfalls. Are these signs of a sport in decline?
It is unfair to make simple comparisons with European leagues that have more than a century of history. Come the weekend in Japan, stadiums around the country are ringed with rows of food stands that create a fair-like atmosphere, which attracts many families. In contrast to the menacing air that sometimes falls over grounds in Europe, in Japan they have a more cozy and welcoming quality.
This season, the number of J.League clubs has increased to 40 from the initial 10 when it began 20 years ago. The Japanese people's penchant for their national sports teams sees them get behind their soccer representatives in unison when the World Cup rolls around. There are also more and more people playing the game, including women.
In the course of carrying out interviews for this series of articles, many European club staff and university professors were unanimous in their praise for Japanese soccer.
"In the 20 years since the establishment of a professional league, the national side has taken part in the World Cup finals for four tournaments in a row from 1998, and has reached the last 16 on two occasions. Last summer, the women's national side became champions of the world. No other country has experienced such rapid growth."
As the drama of survival and relegation has repeated itself year after year, the bonds between Japanese clubs and their supporters have grown stronger.
Even if a club is weak on the pitch, you have to keep supporting it. Attachments to local clubs are beginning to transcend generations and be passed down from parents to children. This is the very essence of this sport, which originated in England, and is now the most popular on the planet.
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