J. League Worldwide #15

There’s nothing more legendary than seeing something becoming worldwide, property of everyone, global. J. League is trying to achieve that, but to do so, you need a global fanbase. And it’s there, although its numbers can certainly rise. In this series of pieces – which will all fall under the label “J. League Worldwide”, we’re trying to tell the personal and professional stories of Japanese football fans all over the world.

Before introducing the eleventh installment of the series, I want to remind the efforts of Stuart Smith in starting this column (you can find him @Sushi_Football on Twitter, doing a good job in spreading the word for J. League). Fourteen episodes are done, and in the last one – published roughly one month ago – we focused on how J. League reached even Canada, talking with Chris (@chribinho).

And if you can read here his interview with us, for Episode number 15, we come back to Europe. Because if there’s a country that shaped Japan’s trajectory in football in the last decade, that’s Spain. We could mention so many players and football figures who populated J. League in the last 7-8 years (in fact, we even wrote a piece in Spanish in the Summer of 2019).

And why not talk with some of these close and affectionate fans? One of them lives there, although his heart is shared with the bleu part of London and English football. Antonio Portillo’s love for Japan has always been there, he just needed a push, which materialized in the arrival of former Spanish national team members to the Far East.

Where are you from and when you first started following J. League?

I’m from Spain, specifically from León, a city in the northwest of the country. Some of you might find it curious, because a Japanese international and current Celtic player, Yosuke Ideguchi, played here (although he featured very, very little). I have always been very curious about Japanese football for years, mostly because it combines two of the things I love most in the world: the beautiful game and Japan.

The final push I had to follow the J.League came from Andrés Iniesta when he signed for Vissel Kobe and Fernando Torres at Sagan Tosu. And from then on, the J.League became more global and left its isolation behind.

Do you have a favorite team or player?

Good question! If I had to single out one player above the rest, I think I would say the great Kazu Miura, for what he means not only for the history of Japanese football but for football worldwide. A player who, without having an international record full of successes, was the one who really opened the way for so many Japanese who loved football in a country that enjoys baseball more.

Without the figure of Miura, it would be very difficult to understand Japanese football. There are also more players I love, like Yasuhito Endo, Shunsuke Nakamura, Tomoaki Makino, Takefusa Kubo, Takuhiro “Pipi” Nakai…

As for teams, it’s complicated but Kawasaki Frontale and Kashima Antlers are the ones I like the most. I hope I can see them play live one day, and of course, I’d like to see Samurai Blue, a team I’ve identified as my own for many years.

We’re used to seeing a lot of coverage around football here in Europe or South America. A tendency growing as well in North America and Asia. How do you keep up with the news regarding the league?

Nowadays it is much easier to get all the information about the J.League and lower divisions than it used to be. I used to have to ask Japanese friends living in Japan to send me newspapers and magazines for information. Also, my understanding of the Japanese language has improved.

Of course, the fact of having one of the best players in the history of Spain, Andrés Iniesta, in Kobe or the best coach of the J.League in Urawa, Ricardo Rodriguez, helped a lot boost the conversation around Japanese football, although there is still a long way to go before we can see information in Spanish.

I also want to emphasize that the J.League has learned to sell its product in a more attractive way, understanding that there are not only Japanese J.League fans.

Have you ever been to Japan for some matches? If so, how was the impact? And if not, which match, and which aspect are you longing the most to?

Unfortunately, I had prepared a trip to Japan for 2020 but because of the world pandemic and the restrictions for foreign travelers I have not been able to fulfill my dream, as in 2021, it was not possible to travel either.

What I like most about Japanese football is how lively the fans are at the games. They never stop cheering; they are always behind their team no matter what happens and there is always a good atmosphere.

I would love to go to a Urawa game to hear the noise of their fans, be at the Todoroki to see Leandro Damiao live, and above all I want to see S-Pulse in Nihondaira on a sunny match day to see Mount Fuji while enjoying a good game.

From your point of view, how do you think J. League has been perceived in your own country? And there’s a space to improve the image of the around the world, just like they’re trying to do?

In recent times the J.League has improved a lot in this aspect. It is true that in Europe a lot of people treat the J.League as a very low-level league, with good players going abroad and coming back when they are older.

In a way that’s true, but many people don’t realize the excellent work that is being done in Japan at the grassroots level, developing players who make the Samurai Blue better year after year. The Japanese player used to be rough, very physical, more rudimentary… now is technically exquisite, with a vision of the game far superior to many others, with a capacity for sacrifice and very intense.

Just to make an example.

And this is as evident in men’s football as it is with the Nadeshiko. For those of us who have been watching Japanese football for years, this is not new: it is a process that started years ago and it’s gradually flourishing. For me, the problem that may exist when it comes to comparing the Japanese and Asian leagues with the rest is due to the calendar.

Let’s say it’s a bit out of sync with the rest of the world, but otherwise, I think we can say that the J.League is the best domestic league in Asia. It only lacks one player who is the real star, the face that we see and relate to the J.League and Japanese football on a global level. Just as Korea has Heung-Min Son, Japan needs a franchise player (author’s note: that’s definitely what’s missing).

We want to thank Antonio for the time he’s given us. It’s nice to see how Spanish speakers have covered the league a lot in the last decade, and he’s no exception! You can follow him on Twitter, where he doesn’t hide his other great passion: Chelsea (and in general the Premier League, whether it’s a website or a book). Follow his work because it’s excellent.

Episode 16 will come soon, so stay tuned!

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