As J.League celebrates 30th anniversary, Japanese football has certainly come a long way

Sunday's J.League 30th Anniversary Special Match between Kashima Antlers and Nagoya Grampus -- two of the competition's ten founding clubs -- saw the former prevail 2-0 in front of 56,020 at Japan National Stadium. Hiroki Watanabe/Getty Images

On Monday, May 15, 2023, the J.League celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Exactly three decades ago, the Japanese football's professional age got underway when Yokohama Marinos (now Yokohama F. Marinos) came from behind to beat Verdy Kawasaki (now Tokyo Verdy) 2-1.

In front of 59,626 at Tokyo National Stadium no less.

It heralded a brave new era for football in Japan but there were hardly any guarantees of success.

Although football was always well followed even when teams and competitions were officially amateur, interest had been steadily declining in the 1980s following an initial boom which followed Japan winning the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.

Baseball was -- and remains -- Japan's biggest across a whole variety of metrics, while sumo wrestling is still considered the national sport.

While there was optimism, the road ahead was uncertain.

Yet, 10,950 days on from the birth of the J.League -- with the occasion commemorated on Sunday with a 30th Anniversary Special Match that saw Kashima Antlers beat Nagoya Grampus 2-0, fittingly in front of a crowd similarly massive to the inaugural tie of 56,020 -- Japanese football has come a long way.

For starters, what began as a ten-team competition now boasts 60 clubs across three tiers -- the J1, J2 and J3 League.

The J.League has slowly but surely emerged as one of the best in all of Asia from whichever perspective, be it quality, star power, fan support or professionalism.

While Japanese teams did not initially prioritise the AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- that has changed over the years with Japan producing five continental champions since 2007, including the most recent and three-time winners Urawa Red Diamonds.

Although the J.League is still unable to match the Middle East such as the Saudi Pro League and Qatar Stars League, as well as the Chinese Super League until recently, in sheer spending power, it continues to have its allure.

From famous Brazil duo Zico and Dunga, along with England international Gary Lineker and even Denmark's Michael Laudrup, to the more recent stars such as Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski and Fernando Torres, the J.League has been home to many illustrious names and the list goes on.

Before it is assumed that Japanese football is a retirement home for many a famous player to wind down their careers, the J.League has also proven to be an excellent starting point for many to go on and achieve bigger and better things.

It is well known that Arsene Wenger spent time at Nagoya before going to lead Premier League giants Arsenal to their most glorious era.

Nonetheless, it is also remarkable -- and quite peculiar -- that Manchester United hero Park Ji-sung never played in his native South Korea but instead began his career in Japan with Kyoto Sanga.

Likewise, before he started terrorising defences all across Europe with Porto, Hulk actually spent his formative years learning his trade at Kawasaki Frontale.

Still, perhaps the best way to determine a success of a domestic competition is in how many of its own products have scaled greater heights, as well as how much the national team has benefitted.

On both counts, the J.League gets more than a pass mark.

While the likes of Kaoru Mitoma, Takefusa Kubo and Daichi Kamada are now leading the way, many have come before them.

It is impossible to look past Hidetoshi Nakata as the most famous of the lot, especially given his pivotal role in Roma becoming Serie A champions in 2000-01 but there are plenty of others that have made an impact.

Makoto Hasebe became the first J.League product -- and second Japanese player -- to win the Bundesliga and more recently also tasted success in the UEFA Europa League alongside Kamada with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Gotoku Sakai and, at present, Wataru Endo were influential enough to be named captains of Hamburg and Stuttgart respectively.

Takumi Minamino's role as an impact player with Liverpool was particularly prominent in some of their latest successes, while a whole host of Japan international are currently achieveing plenty with Scottish Premiership giants Celtic -- under another J.League alumnus in Australian manager Ange Postecoglou.

And on the international stage, while Japan had never qualified for a FIFA World Cup prior to the J.League's inception, they have since reached seven consecutive tournament since their debut in 1998.

Currently placed a lofty 20th in the FIFA world rankings -- the highest of any Asian nation -- the Samurai Blue most famously beat both Germany and Spain at last year's World Cup to reach the knockout round for a fourth occasion.

While other teams in Asia and even Africa often benefit from naturalised or foreign-born players, every member of Japan's squad at Qatar 2022 had come through the J.League.

Despite all its success, the J.League does not stand still.

The format of the competition, and the accompany rules and regulations, have undergone many changes over the years.

Almost revolutionary, and quite unselfishly too, the competition does not impose a foreign player quota of its partner nations -- who are mainly far less developed than in footballing terms, which allows and encourages talented prospects from these nations an easier path to gaining exposure to a higher level of football that is the J.League.

Thailand have been the biggest beneficiary with current Frontale man Chanathip Songkrasin becoming the most expensive domestic transfer in Japanese football when he moved from Consadole Sapporo before the start of last season, while Theerathon Bunmathan became a J1 League champion with Marinos back in 2019.

Others though are also looking to profit with Vietnam star Nguyen Cong Phuong back for another shot at making it in Japanese football with Yokohama FC, while Indonesia's Pratama Arhan on the books of J2 League outfit Tokyo Verdy.

Through the J.League's 'Hundred Year Vision', Japanese football aims to have 100 professional football clubs, as well as win the World Cup, by 2092.

The by-product of this vision, and perhaps the more important and sustainable goal, is to promote a rich footballing culture within communities throughout the entire nation that will naturally trickle over onto the professional scene.

There is no denying that there remains a long road ahead for Japanese football but they do still have another 70 years to go.

For now, it is impossible to deny that the first 30 years have been a success.