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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK

How football went Japanese

By BBC Sport Online's Lewis Wiltshire

Just over nine years after the first ball was kicked in a professional league in Japan, the World Cup final will take place in Yokohama.

It has been a whirlwind decade for Japanese football.

But the roots of the rise and rise of the game's popularity lie much further back.

Modern football is thought to have been introduced to Japan in 1873 by an Englishman, lieutenant commander Douglas, who was an instructor at the Royal Navy's academy in Tokyo.

By 1921 the Japan Football Association (JFA) was established in Tokyo and in 1929 the JFA was affiliated to Fifa.

The national team competed at the Olympics in both 1936 and 1956.

But it was not until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that the game became really popular, sparked by Japan's 3-2 victory over Argentina.

The following year saw the creation of the Japan Soccer League (JSL), which remained amateur until another Olympics led to the advent of professionalism.

The 1984 Los Angeles Games were the first to officially allow professional participants and, taking that lead, the JSL announced in 1986 that they would recognise professional players.

Yasuhiko Okudera, the first professional Japanese footballer, was brought home from the Bundesliga.

More followed and in 1988 the JFA decided to create a professional league.

In November 1991 the Japan Professional Football League, popularly known as the J-League, was formed.

On 15 May 1993 a crowd of 59,626 watched Verdy Kawasaki take on Yokohama Marinos in the J-League's opening game.

It was a massive - and surprise - success and it very quickly snowballed.

Backed financially by huge Japanese companies, clubs signed stars like Brazil's Zico and England's Gary Lineker.

Arsene Wenger - who was later to take over at Arsenal - coached there and so did two former Tottenham players, Ossie Ardiles and Steve Perryman.

Their influence improved the quality of the Japanese players.

In 1995 and 1997 Japan's under-20s made the quarter-finals of the Fifa World Youth Championship.

And in 1998 Japan took part in the World Cup finals for the first time, qualifying via a 3-2 victory over Iran in the Asian play-off.

The J-League introduced two divisions in 1999.

And in 2000, the next generation of under-20s claimed the silver medal at the Fifa World Youth Championship.

That was enough of an incentive for Fifa - desperate to promote the game in the furthest corners of the football world - to announce that Japan would co-host the 2002 World Cup with Korea.


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