J.League clubs focussing on community and youth

Kenji Onitake, chairman of Japan's professional J. League, recently spoke to James Mulligan of The Japan Times. Onitake joined Yanmar Diesel Engine Co Ltd in 1962 and played for the Yanmar team until 1967, making his name as a right winger. After retirement took over as manager of the team from 1967 to 1978, leading the club to a hat trick of Japan Soccer League titles and Emperor's Cups, before taking up various executive positions within the Yanmar organisation. With the advent of the J. League in 1993, Onitake led Yanmar to become a professional club and was named the first president of Cerezo Osaka in the year the league began, before resigning to become J. League vice chairman in 2004. He took the reigns as the third J. League chairman in July last year and is now presiding over his first full season in charge.

On J.League potential

To tell you the exact number of spectators at J.League matches last year, there were 8,363,963, which means, on average, 58 percent of J1 stadiums' capacity and a little less than 40 percent of the J2 stadiums' capacity. The plan is for the J.League to have 11 million spectators a year by 2010.

On community relations and youth development

The most important thing is that for each club to be rooted in the community. The club must be part of peoples' lives in the community, something people can't afford to lose in their lives. In the community, we foster the development of an environment, which we call an academy, where youngsters, from kids to about 21-year-olds, can enjoy sport. And soccer should be one of those sports. We never think of competing with other sports. We aim to foster kids in the community through the sport. All kids do not have to play soccer.

In Japan, there is always competition in all the levels of soccer -- from elementary school to college or company league. They always want to win in a team, even if it is just in elementary school soccer. Winning as a team in all levels is the most important thing for them, their mission. Always win, win, win ... But they'll get tired of competing by the time they become adults. We think youngsters' goals should be winning at the highest level, as grownups, not trying to win in every level. They shouldn't be focused just to try to win until becoming adults.

The J.League has been trying to foster youth in each community and winning is not important at this stage. After, they'll go to the community's J.League club as adults and try to win. The top club's manager must think of winning. But until then, fostering kids is more important than just trying to win.

Japanese teams of 10-year-old kids can beat Germany, France and other European clubs. Their kids' teams are weak. But for the adult teams, they'll beat Japan. Why is that? They do individual training. But we do team training and that's wrong. For kids, technique and individual tactics are important. But coaches try to make kids fit the team. But this is changing. Futsal (fewer players, smaller pitches) and small-sided games are very effective with youngsters.

The J.League and Japan Football Association organise all kinds of soccer. Some communities are led by J.League and others by JFA. And we have a close relationship with each other. We'll have the new futsal league this fall. You can play futsal anywhere even on the tennis court or the roof of the buildings. Kids watch the adults play it and they will also play. By doing this, they can improve their technique.

I believe there is a lot of potential among the 10-year-old kids. We need coaches that can find their potential and train those kids properly. This year, very young players went to Europe, (18-year-old) Sho Ito and (20-year-old) Tsukasa Umesaki. They grew up after the J. League started. So, in 10 years' time, the situation will be a lot different. So, maybe 10 years or 20 years from now, I hope . . . (laughs). But seriously, it's step by step.

Mind the gap

From two or three years prior to the start of the J.League in 1993, we started to prepare the launch of the professional league. But Japan soccer has about an 80- to 100-year history. Before we established the J.League, we studied sports management in Europe and the United States, especially the four major sports of North America. In Europe, soccer has a more than 100-year history. So we also studied the development and evolution of soccer there.

We decided to go with the one-stage system by watching the trends of leagues around the world and decided the league competition of soccer be continued the whole season. It can't be helpful (to some clubs) at an early stage. But we have to work hard to close the gap. For example, in an 18-team league, the top six compete for the championship and the bottom six could be demoted to the second division and the other six go either way. The important thing is make an effort to narrow the gap of these three categories. By doing so, we can help make the national team compete at the top level of the world and the club management also can improve.