Since the J League was formed in 1993 the clubs that make up the division have had something of an obsession with Brazilian players and strikers in particular. This fascination stems from the Japanese people’s insatiable desire to learn, and when the country decided to form their own national division they saw Brazil as the perfect example to follow and their players as ideal teachers.
Links between Japan and Brazil are nothing new, with the South American country home to the largest Japanese population outside of the Land of the Rising Sun. Similarly Japan is home to thousands of Japanese-Brazilians with an influx fleeing to Asia in the early ‘90s when Japan amended its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which allowed Japanese descendants to move to the country. So with ties so strong it seems fitting that they should form a partnership through football and we have seen a Brazilian (Alex) and a Japanese-Brazilian (Tulio) turn out for the Soccer Nippon Daihyō.
It was one of the greatest players to ever pull on Brazil’s famous green and gold kit who made the biggest impact in the early days of the J League, as Zico wowed crowds and helped Kashima Antlers (formerly the Sumitomo Metal Industries Soccer Club) establish themselves as the leading force in Japanese football.
Despite the fact that he was approaching his 40thbirthday, Zico showed all the enthusiasm, class and professionalism that made him an icon at Flamengo and after scoring 46 goals in 65 appearances he was nicknamed the “God of Soccer” by Japanese supporters.
The undisputed success of Zico led to the introduction of several other Brazilian stars with Djalminha, Bebeto, Careca, Leonardo, Márcio Amoroso and most notably Dunga all enjoying successful spells in the J.League. The likes of Zico, Dunga and Leonardo had a hugely positive impact on Japanese football, teaching their hard-working teammates the value of technique and good attitude. Unfortunately the success of these players has meant that J1 teams now feel obliged to include a Brazilian in their team, even if their Japanese counterparts have proven themselves to be more effective.
Japanese football expert Alan Gibson has bemoaned J League teams over-reliance on second-rate Brazilian imports whilst superior Japanese players sit on the bench every week, posting on Twitter: “J League coaches finally choosing on merit without pressure from above? Also getting some decent non-Brazilian foreigners. Times changing!”
Alan has a point and it has been apparent for a while that the Japanese are unable to shake the idea that Brazilians are always their footballing superiors, with most J1 clubs hoping that their token Brazilian will enjoy the same sort of success as Zico or more recently Edmilson (who was among the top scorers in 2009 and 2010).
This has had a detrimental impact on the national team where, in the absence of a quality centre forward, Japan have turned to midfielder Keisuke Honda to lead the line. Slowly things seem to be changing though, and it appears that players are now being picked because of their ability instead of their nationality. One Brazilian who has earned his place though is Gamba Osaka’s lethal forward Adriano.
Having spent the majority of his journeyman career toiling at small clubs around South America, before failing when he finally got his big chances at Internacional, Malaga and Vasco da Gama. Japanese fans would be forgiven if they thought Adriano was going to be another below-par Brazilian when he signed for J1 side Cerezo Osaka in 2010, but it turned out that he was anything but, as his 19 goals helped Cerezo become the surprise package of the J League season, as the newly-promoted side finished 3rd and qualified for the AFC Champions League.
His good form led to interest from neighbours Gamba and it wasn’t long before the Brazilian was crossing the Osaka divide to pull on the blue shirt of Cerezo’s fiercest rivals and although it always leaves a bitter taste when a player decides to move to his former-employer’s worst enemies, at least Adriano earned his move because of his goals and all-round play, as opposed to his passport.
The new season may have only just begun but Adriano hasn’t wasted any time in endearing himself to his new fans, as he sits at the top of the J1 scoring charts with nine goals to his name. Notably there are only two foreign players amongst the top ten scorers which suggest that attitudes are indeed changing in Japan and hopefully when it comes to Brazilians the J League will now opt for quality over quantity.
Sadly, it appears that many Brazilians still view Japanese clubs as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and Adriano recently announced that he had accepted a lucrative offer to move to Qatar (the fourth time a Brazilian has left Gamba for the Middle East in recent years).
Maybe this will lead to Gamba and other J1 clubs opting to play the many talented home grown players on their books instead of taking on the first Brazilian they can find. National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni can only hope.
By Matthew Kenny
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona