|Kyogo Furuhashi has been a revelation for Celtic since leaving Japan to sign for the Scottish giants in the summer. — AFP/VNA Photo
It’s David versus Goliath this week at Mỹ Đình Stadium, and there are no prizes for guessing whether it’s Japan or Việt Nam playing the role of the giant.
While the Vietnamese players were training (and being COVID tested) over the weekend in Hà Nội, some of Japan’s stars were strutting their stuff for Europe’s top teams.
Kyogo Furuhashi scored a brace for Celtic, Ritsu Doan popped up with a goal for Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, Takehiro Tomiyasu played 90 minutes of Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Watford, and Takumi Minamino came on late in Liverpool’s shock defeat to West Ham.
Hard as it may be to believe when you scan the household names on the team sheet today, Japanese football wasn’t always an Asian powerhouse.
In fact, in the early 1990s the top-flight in Japan was still amateur, attendances were poor and stadiums were crumbling, in stark contrast to the glitz of professional baseball in the country.
So what happened between then and now? Have Japan been blessed with golden generation after golden generation? Did a whole raft of European players discover their long-lost Japanese heritage?
The truth is a lot simpler and perhaps a bit more boring: football authorities planned for the future.
In 1992, the Japanese FA launched a 100-year vision, with the goals of having a successful league, winning the World Cup by 2092, and having 100 professional clubs in the country, according to a fantastic article on the subject on thesefootballtimes.co.
The results of the plan speak for themselves: qualification for every World Cup since 1998, four Asian Cup triumphs since 1992, and becoming the ninth-ranked team in the world at one point.
Aside from national team success, the J1 League has become the best domestic competition in Asia and is arguably one of the world’s best outside of Europe, while Japanese players have become fixtures in teams across Europe’s top leagues.
As Vietnamese fans savour this golden generation of players and their exploits, it’s fair to ask, “Where’s our 100-year plan?”
Chaotic administration is the norm in Southeast Asian football and a large part of the reason no nation in the region has played in a World Cup since 1938, and the reason long-term planning is rare.
Instead nations have traditionally risen and fallen on the back of a few outstanding talents rather than a coherent overall strategy.
Thailand’s run to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying is a perfect example. Just as Việt Nam have the opportunity to kick on now, Thailand could have used that success as a platform for regional domination.
Instead, they have floundered and lost their spot at the ASEAN summit to ViệtNam, despite still having some prodigious talents to call upon.
Part of the answer to Southeast Asian football’s short-termism may lie in scrapping the AFF Championship’s biennial format, which, as pointed out in Antony Sutton’s biography of Steve Darby, allows football administrators to eschew long-term planning in favour of focusing on politically expedient short-term success.
Putting more focus on tougher competitions and following the Japanese blueprint to planning wouldn’t make anyone at the VFF popular today or tomorrow, but it could set Vietnamese football up for a glorious future.
To paraphrase a well-worn axiom, a football federation grows great when old administrators make plans in whose success they know they shall never take credit for. — VNS