When the J.League was launched each club was mandated to have a commitment to youth development. Beginning in 1994 the J-Youth Cup was launched as a vehicle for club sides to play matches at junior level. By the turn of the century the emphasis on youth football was further enshrined when the league insisted every current and future club must establish junior or school teams in addition to under-15 and under-18 sides and their reserve sides.
Players saw a clear progression from junior sides to the top teams, and the club model quickly became the preferred path for youngsters aiming for a professional career. Almost every club across the country now has several graduates from their youth teams that regularly feature in the senior side. Recently crowned J.League champions Gamba Osaka are one good example. Of the side that won the J1 title in December, goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, defender Daiki Niwa, midfielders Takahiro Futagawa and Shu Kurata and striker Takashi Usami all spent time at various levels of the Gamba youth setup. With every club required to have this assortment of youth teams, a model of cups and league tournaments have sprung up to support their growth but perhaps the most important move has to been to integrate both the leading club and high school sides in the one setup. Hiromi Hara, the long-time technical director of the JFA, told Leopold Method this combining of elite players in both development streams is a good arrangement.
‘We decided to make the club teams and the high school teams join together to play in a youth tournament from three years ago,’ he said. ‘What we’ve found is that the J.League clubs are generally stronger but there are still a lot of good players within the high school teams. Those sides don’t want to lose to the clubs and there are good matches where together they can raise each others level.
‘Generally the overall level is better in the clubs but many high schools tend to have one player that stands out more than others – a kind of “star” which the clubs often don’t have. The point for the JFA is that either way we get good players and it doesn’t matter from where. Honda, Nagatomo, Hasebe, they unexpectedly all came from high school.’
One player who has seen both systems up close is Mu Kanazaki; capped five times by Japan and now playing with Portimonense in Portugal. The 25-year-old attacker spent time in both the high school and J.League club systems and told Leopold Method he can see the merits in both systems.
‘I spent a lot of time in high school but also from the age of eight was involved with a club side,’ he said. ‘In the club structure every player is determined to get promoted into the top side so they are constantly striving to polish their individual skills and I feel this makes them better than high school players.
‘On the other hand though the high school players have a real united focus and are aiming to win the Senshuken as a team, playing together so you can see the sacrifice and hard work that applies there too. Then in regional areas you might have players from both club and schools gathering together at the JFA facility so in Japan there are really so many opportunities for players to develop and progress as a player.’
Even as far as the under-13 age group there are now league and cup tournaments run along J.League lines which, as of last year, featured 49 teams in the under-14 age bracket and 120 at the under-13 level. Additionally, the league regularly runs international tours and camps for a ‘J.League selection’ of the best players at these age groups. At both under-15 and under-18 levels, there is a league structure and two knockout competitions played annually which means players in these age groups could play anywhere between 30-45 matches in a given year.
The Prince Takamado Cup is the league competition for the under-18 age group consisting of 10 teams (both school and J.League clubs) from the west and 10 from the eastern reaches of Japan – complete with a promotion and relegation structure. I attended the 2014 final, which was broadcast on TV and played in front of 20,000 spectators at one of the venues for the 2002 World Cup – Urawa Reds’ home stadium in Saitama. It was hard to believe that the match, played between Kashiwa Reysol and champions Cerezo Osaka, was featuring a group of 16-17 year olds.
As is the case with the Senshuken finals the players’ technical ability is, in my opinion, among the best anywhere in the world at that age level. Tactically both sides were well organised and disciplined but it was the poise on the ball, the ability to find solutions when being tightly pressed and the decision making under pressure that was a standout. This is the product of having a well-rounded, intense and deep pool of coaches and an ardent commitment to a laden training and game load.
As is the case with the high school system, in rare instances J.League clubs will look to recruit exceptional foreign players to bolster their youth teams. I had the opportunity to sit down on the outskirts of Tokyo with one such player recently to look at the different systems available to players inside of Japan and outside.
Michael Den Heijer grew up in Auckland as the son of a rugby- loving father yet resisted the temptation of the 15-man game to make his way through a series of provincial youth teams before joining the famed Wynton Rufer academy, WYNRS, as a teenager. A series of international tours – including two to Japan – helped to hone his skills and he was a key member of the New Zealand side which participated in the 2013 under-17 World Cup. From there he was invited to trial and eventually picked up by one of the J.League’s leading sides, Kashiwa Reysol. Spending the year with a club which reached the final of the national under-18 championships, the Prince Takamado Cup, Den Heijer described his time in the youth setup in Japan as invaluable.
‘I feel that this is definitely the best place for my development. The pace of the game in Japan is really fast and the technical side is very high too. In New Zealand there is more emphasis on the physical aspects so my technique doesn’t need to be as good as it does here; for me that’s the key thing I’m developing here, just refining those technical skills.’
Den Heijer estimates he played almost 40 matches from March to December last season and his daily routine is just as intense. He lives in a dormitory with ten other players where they are given just the one day a week off with a constant flow of training and matches – in addition to non-footballing activities.
‘For me, my day starts in the morning with Japanese lessons then after lunch I’ll head to the training ground. I usually try to arrive an hour early to prepare and then training runs six days a week from 4:30 until 7:00pm. There’s usually another hour or so after training to have injuries looked at or get icing or whatever then we have dinner together at the club. Reysol has a couple of full-time chefs that cook for all the youth squads and they look after us really well.’
The 18 year old is hopeful of cracking the New Zealand squad for the under-20 World Cup which his home country will host later this year and believes he’s getting the ideal grounding for that in Japan.
‘Both the under-15 and the under-18 squads train together and in my age group I have maybe 40 kids so just the competition for places is intense. Coming from New Zealand where you go to a team and you’re straight in it’s totally different here, you have to work and fight for everything.
‘At Reysol we have a real emphasis on technical qualities, based a lot on the Bayern Munich and Barcelona models – a focus on possession soccer. It makes us successful as a club and me better as a player and with 40 matches or so in a season it means I’m getting double the amount of work and game-time that I would back home.’