The second in our installment looking at the fans of the J.League across the globe takes us to Australia, and to Urawa Reds supporter Ryan Steele. Take it away, Ryan….
How did you first become interested in Japanese football?
My connection with Japan in general began at a very young age, being taught Japanese in school at 5 years old and having Japanese exchange student friends at my high school. While at that time I didn’t really know or understand a great deal about Japan (I didn’t even understand the concept of a foreign language when I was 5) I started to be pushed towards Japanese football in my high school years. I wasn’t too focused on the J.League at the time, as the connection with the digital age hadn’t really kicked in, but my Japanese friends all followed the national team and I had developed some sort of connection with Urawa Reds.
Why Urawa Reds?
The story of how I started following Urawa has all become a little blurred in the decade-plus that I’ve really been following them closely, but I attribute a lot of it to Shinji Ono. He was a star of Japan at the time and he’s a recognisable face even to this day for those who are not big on football. Australia has always leaned towards European football and Ono was playing for Dutch side Feyenoord at the time, which meant he particularly stood out when his team won the UEFA Cup. I can’t profess to have been fanatical about football at the time, but my friends’ interests had rubbed off on me and that led me to trace Ono’s playing history back to Urawa. As I started seeing more of them, I became more interested and, eventually, found that I was supporting them as my main team. They were a great team to watch under Guido Buchwald and that really pulled me in.
How do you keep up to date with events in Japanese football despite living in a foreign country?
The evolutions in technology and the web have made it easier than ever to follow football throughout the world, from social media platforms where news and discussion are immediately available, to highlights on YouTube or the streaming of live matches, whether they be legal or not. As my language ability also developed I was also able to find and understand more information, which unlocked a whole new world of engagement with the club and its supporters, while there is even a growing international community of Japanese football followers, which has mostly moved together from one platform to another for the better part of a decade. At one point, J.League matches were broadcast on live television in Australia as well, though that phase has unfortunately since passed.
Who is your favourite Japanese player?
There have been many great players since I first became interested in Japanese football, but it has been hard to pull myself away from enjoying the talent of Shinji Ono. He came to life in a generation of some very good players, but there was something unique about him and the creativity he provided to his teams. He was nicknamed “Genius” and it was for a very good reason, as he could create opportunity with the deftest of touches that would absolutely astonish fans. He has also impressed in later years despite the hindrance of injuries, winning titles in his 30s with Western Sydney Wanderers and making a significant impact during his time in Australia’s A-League.
How is the J.League viewed in your country?
The J.League is considered by most in Australia as a highly technical league and the benchmark for football across Asia. The players are deemed to be of an overall higher quality than those within the A-League, though there are several misconceptions due to the lack of media interest beyond stereotypes. All teams are considered to be focused on possession-based football and lacking physicality, and are the perennial favourites for the Champions League. This has also led to clubs lacking interest or being scared off of signing talented Japanese players/youth, despite success stories of previous players like Shinji Ono, Yojiro Takahashi and Ryo Nagai.