Japan’s futsal community is hoping the upcoming FIFA Futsal World Cup will bolster the popularity of its domestic league, just as Nadeshiko Japan’s victory at the Women’s World Cup last summer gave women’s soccer in Japan a huge shot in the arm.
The Japanese men’s national futsal team will be participating in the final round of Asian qualifiers starting later this month in the United Arab Emirates. If the team makes it to the World Cup, to be held in Thailand in November, it will be its fourth time participating in the competition.
Futsal is a version of soccer played on a smaller pitch, often indoors, with five players a side. There are unlimited substitutions and the ball is smaller and less bouncy than a regular soccer ball.
“By winning (the World Cup), we can get some attention,” says an official with Japan’s futsal league, the F.League. “We hope this will be the first step in boosting the popularity (of our sport).”
The Japanese team took part in an exhibition tournament in China until May 14, hoping to get in more practice ahead of the Asian qualifiers, which also double as the Asian Championships. The team is working on “power play,” in which the goalkeeper is replaced by a regular field player so that all five team members can provide offense. This tactic is often used as a last resort near the end of a game to provide extra offense.
When Miguel Rodrigo first took the helm of the Japanese national men’s futsal team in June 2009, he instructed his players to focus on organized play in which the team concentrates on defense first to avoid giving up points, and then gradually goes on the offense. Now, the team is focusing on a strategy that the Spanish coach had initially said was the lowest priority for the team.
Kenichi Kogure, 32, who has long been leading the national team as a player, says, “We get very detailed instruction on the tactics of offense and defense. But (coach Rodrigo) also understands that games don’t always go as planned in practice.”
During practice, the players are drilled on basic match strategies and, based on those strategies, they must still adapt and be flexible in game situations. To do this, the players communicate thoroughly with each other.
“We can make it to the World Cup if we make the top four (at the Asian qualifiers), but we want to beat Asian powerhouse Iran and win the tournament,” said Kogure, who plays for Nagoya Oceans in the F.League. “Experiencing a tournament victory (in the Asian qualifiers) will lead to progress.”
The F.League is also counting on the success of the men’s national team, hoping it will boost attendance at league games in Japan. This season kicks off June 16, after the Asian qualifiers. The league is introducing a new playoff system this season after the regular season ends. If the national team can gain some media attention, officials believe it will bring more excitement to the league.
F.League officials have tried various measures to boost popularity, but fan attendance stands at an average of about 1,300 people per game. The main barrier is the image in Japan that futsal is a sport to play, not to watch. Futsal enthusiasts are often busy with their own practices and games on weekends, when F.League matches are held.
Some club teams have been trying to attract enthusiasts by hosting matches between their players and fans at their home stadiums after F.League matches.
In another effort to raise the profile of the sport in Japan, soccer legend “King” Kazu Miura suited up for an F.League match in Sapporo in January.
“Just like Nadeshiko Japan’s success led to increased fan attendance at Nadeshiko League games last season, futsal could become a major sport this year,” says one F.League official.
Sixteen teams will compete in four groups during the first round of the final Asian qualifiers. The top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals. Teams that make it to the semifinals will compete at the FIFA Futsal World Cup to be held in Thailand from Nov. 1-18.
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