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Sunday, July 13, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Challenges await new JFA president


As Motoaki Inukai settles into his new role as president of the Japan Football Association, he must contend with both the challenges ahead of him and the weight of the past on his shoulders.

Andrew McKirdy

Inukai was officially elected to replace outgoing chief Saburo Kawabuchi on Saturday, as the 71-year-old came to the end of his third term after six years as president and a decade before as the most influential man in Japanese soccer.

Inukai comes to the job with an impressive track record. As a player during the days of the Japan Soccer League and then head of Mitsubishi Motors' European subsidiary, he rose through the ranks to turn his company's amateur team into the most powerful club in Asia — Urawa Reds.

Urawa's success has not come easy, but Inukai acknowledged the difficulties he will face in his new role earlier this week when he said: "It's going to be a very tough job. It won't be easy to come up with ideas of how to take Japanese soccer forward."

One area where his expertise could come in handy is helping other J. League clubs attain the level of popularity he helped bestow upon Reds.

Urawa built up its enormous fanbase through diligence and commitment to its supporters, encouraging participation and fostering a strong bond that survived years of underachievement on the field. Albirex Niigata is another club that enjoys attendances beyond what it could reasonably expect, but the picture is not so rosy elsewhere.

Clubs in cities far bigger than Saitama or Niigata, such as Osaka, Hiroshima and Kobe, desperately need more fans, and if Inukai can use his experience to boost interest in the Kansai region, he will have solved a mystery that has baffled soccer officials for years.

There is also room for the J. League to grow at a lower level. If England can sustain over 100 professional clubs, it seems reasonable that the J. League could extend its reach to a third division.

A more ambitious challenge for Inukai, however, would be to establish regular, meaningful competition for J. League sides against European clubs.

Preseason friendlies against touring teams count for nothing, and the suspicion remains that Urawa's triumph in the 2007 Asian Champions League was heralded only because it was the first time a Japanese team had won after years of failure. If victory becomes routine, the shine will quickly wear off.

Kawabuchi was relentless in chasing an automatic spot for one Japanese team at the annual Club World Cup, and the fact that the tournament has moved from Japan to the Middle East for two years should not discourage Inukai from pushing it further. Although the competition is greatly unloved in Europe, an expanded version held every two years in the summer could renew interest and boost the level of Japanese teams if their participation was guaranteed.

This may just be wishful thinking, as might the prospect of the World Cup returning to Japan in the foreseeable future, but a bid for the Asian Cup in 2015 certainly looks possible. The tournament has struggled with poor attendances in recent years, and if Japan can give it a shot in the arm, Inukai's impact would not go unnoticed.

And reputation, of course, goes a long way.

The value of political influence in the FIFA corridors of power cannot be understated, and the relatively little-known Inukai will have his work cut out to make a name for himself. His task will be made all the more difficult by the ubiquitous specter of his predecessor.

For many in Japan and the wider world, Kawabuchi is Japanese soccer. His fingerprint is indelibly stamped on almost every facet of the game in this country, not least the formation of the J. League and cohosting of the 2002 World Cup. The self-styled "Captain" was by no means the sole architect of Japan's soccer boom in the late '80s and 90's, but he was most definitely the poster boy.

Such a vast shadow will be difficult for Inukai to escape, but he has shown in his career so far that he is his own man. He has, in the past week, already signaled his intention to continue in the same vein, naming former tennis player Kimiko Krumm-Date and ex-rugby coach Seiji Hirao to the JFA's board of directors.

The appointments are reminiscent of then-Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to install national hockey coach Bernhard Peters as sporting director of the German association (DFB) prior to the 2006 World Cup.

The DFB viewed Klinsmann as a crank, suspicious of the unconventional methods he brought to the job from his California home, and vetoed Peters' appointment as a step too far. A third-place finish at the World Cup, where Klinsmann was vindicated by the universal praise Germany received for its entertaining style, soon brought an about-turn from the DFB.

Inukai's coronation as JFA president may bring the same breath of fresh air to an organization that is in danger of becoming sated and stale. Only time will tell if he produces results, but a new era has definitely begun.



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