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Mar 2, 2013

J. League's flowers at risk of fading

In 2007, Urawa Reds became the first Japanese team to win the Asian Champions League and provided the fledgling tournament with its first iconic image as the trophy was paraded in front of 60,000 rapturous red-clad fans after another wild Wednesday just north of Tokyo. A year later and fellow J. Leaguers Gamba Osaka provided its second; repeating Urawa's success by passing Adelaide United to death in a delightful demonstration of the beautiful game.

Those were heady days for the J. League. It was hailed as the best division in Asia in terms of the strength of its teams and the style of football on the pitch and the way the clubs and the league itself was operated off it. If that wasn't enough, it also boasted the highest average attendance on the continent. Some of that is still true, some not and some, well, some is starting to be up for debate. The Chinese Super League is nowhere near the J. League in terms of administration, marketing and infrastructure but has surpassed its eastern neighbour in average attendance. And when it comes to the contest on the pitch, there is a growing feeling that the gap is closing and the J. League, which has motored along since it started in 1993, has stalled - temporarily at least.

Since Gamba's win, Japan has struggled in the Asian Champions League, not a perfect measuring tool of what is happening at home but a good indicator nonetheless. The expected dynasty did not happen and it is South Korea which has dominated since, sending eight teams to the quarter-finals in the past three tournaments. In contrast, of the 12 J. League teams that started out in that time, just one has made the last eight and even that does not bring back happy memories. Cerezo Osaka bowed out in 2011 after a 6-1 second leg mauling at the hands of Korea's Jeonbuk Motors. As defensive performances go, the word chaotic did not do it justice.

The Flaming Pinks were not really about defending, however. Helping to develop some of the most exciting attacking players in Asia was more their thing, but keeping hold of them is a different matter entirely. In the space of just two years, three of the best left. Shinji Kagawa headed for Borussia Dortmund in 2010 and then in 2012, the team's new stars Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kim Bo-Kyoung departed for FC Nurnberg and Cardiff City respectively. In the history of Asian football, rarely has so much talent been sold to so many European teams by so few.

Arsene Wenger was right when he said recently that the J. League was a new market for talent but it is not only the buyer who should beware. It comes at a cost for the seller too. An increasing number of players are leaving Japan for Europe and they are doing so at an increasingly young age. While this gives opportunities for even younger talent to come into the first-team and get serious minutes on the pitch at a good level, it takes time for the rookies - even those that come up through the best youth development system in Asia - to make the step up.

While the standard of exports has been second to none in recent times, the same can't be said of those coming in the other direction. There are still decent players but the real gems are shining elsewhere. Despite their exodus, Cerezo just managed to escape the drop in 2012 but city rivals Gamba did not. Major corporate backers Panasonic were contributing less money going into the start of the 2012 season. Stars had left and while fans did not exactly expect the title, they also did not expect to drop down to the second tier, a disaster that made losing five of six Asian Champions League games look trivial in comparison. If that wasn't bad enough, three players who had been on Gamba's books the previous season all played major roles in helping Ulsan of Korea lift the 2012 continental trophy.

The 3-0 defeat suffered by Gamba's predecessors Urawa Reds at Guangzhou Evergrande earlier this week in the opening round of the 2013 Asian Champions League was as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests. Recently-rich Chinese clubs have found that buying top-class foreigners such as Dario Conca, Lucas Barrios and Muriqui delivers titles at home and is a quick way of closing the gap overseas. Urawa had possession but no penetration. It was a far cry from the 2007 vintage - a clinical and ruthless crop containing the feared Robson Ponte and Washington. Other big boys such as Kashima Antlers had equally big foreign talents.

Guangzhou has developed a reputation for being South American focused but as a whole China is a lot more imaginative when it comes to foreign stars. There are 25 nationalities on display in the Chinese Super League, more than double the number in Japan where the vast majority of teams repeatedly order a Brazilian and Korean set meal. Both are of variable quality with too many mediocre non-stars of Samba looking for an easy payday and too many raw Taeguk Warriors merely seeking to avoid the football draft and other restrictions on young players at home.

Guangzhou is also open in its desire to win the Asian Champions League and move a step closer towards its ultimate aim of becoming the first 'Asian Superclub', a title once held by Urawa. The competition is a big deal in China. In Japan, fans and media are less interested and, according to some, so are the teams themselves. There is a little truth in the excuse, and there used to be a little more, but it has become a convenient line fed by clubs, often after elimination, to fans and media happy for a comfortable excuse. Winning without really caring is a major achievement, losing is explained away without a real examination of other factors.

It is clear that the exodus of talent and general lower quality of imported labour has weakened the league, if only a little. It has also served to shake up the old order. The fall from grace of the likes of Gamba, Kashima and Yokohama has allowed fresh blood such as Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa Reyosl to challenge for the first time. That also produces representatives that are 'green' in continental terms - compare these with the battle-hardened and tough old hands from Korea that play year in, year out - but that will change over time.

Everything does. The recent, and relative, struggles of Japanese clubs in the Asian Champions League does reflect a slight dip in the strength of the J. League on the pitch but while the flowers may be temporarily fading, the roots are healthy. Japan is producing plenty of talent and will continue to do so, perhaps it just needs to keep a little more for itself for a little longer.

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