Japan’s rise and rise in football and the lessons for Bangladesh

Japan fans celebrate outside the Lusail stadium after Japan defeated Spain and qualified for the knockout stagesReuters

The 2022 Qatar World Cup has so far been the World Cup of upsets.

Shocking results like two-time World champions Argentina getting bested by Saudi Arabia, defending champions France losing to Tunisia and world No.2 Belgium getting knocked out of the World Cup by Morocco have already made this a memorable edition of the FIFA World Cup.

However, the team that has turned the most heads in the Qatar World Cup so far has been Japan.

The entire football world is calling Japan’s triumph against Germany and Spain and them sealing a spot in the second round an ‘upset’. But the Japanese football fraternity could oppose that statement.

Japan's Ao Tanaka celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates

To the rest of the world, Japan’s performance might seem like a surprise, a bolt from the blue, but in fact it’s the result of a calculated plan, which began with a pledge the country’s football authorities made to its people in 2005. A pledge, if fulfilled, will see them win a World Cup by 2050.

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Nine years after Japan, the football authority in Bangladesh also made a bold pledge centering the FIFA World Cup.

Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) announced its “Vision 2022”, promising that Bangladesh would compete in the 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup.

As we all know, Bangladesh is not playing in the 2022 World Cup, nor were they in contention of playing in the tournament.

However, in a sense, the BFF have already surpassed their promise. So what if Bangladesh have never competed in the tournament, the World Cup trophy has already arrived in Dhaka, albeit for a media visit.

A 45-year-long promise

Despite co-hosting the 2002 edition of the FIFA World Cup, Japan was far from a footballing powerhouse.

Inside their country, the sport was lagging in popularity behind baseball and Sumo. In the global landscape, the gulf between them and the footballing elite in Europe and Latin America seemed insurmountable and the difference was growing every year.

Japan Football Association (JFA) then decided to take some drastic measures in order to take football to every Japanese household and emerge as a footballing powerhouse.

But the JFA authorities knew that this won’t happen overnight. To streamline this seemingly mammoth task, they announced the ‘The JFA Declaration 2005.’

In that declaration, they pointed out their ideals, their visions and most importantly, “The JFA Pledge for 2050.”

The JFA Declaration, 2005

In that pledge, they had two clear objectives,

  • The Football Family of Japan, the fans with a true love for football, will number 10 million strong.”

  • We will host the FIFA World Cup in Japan, and the Japan national team will be the champion.

Football rise in the land of the rising sun

In order to fulfil their ultimate goal, the JFA also made some intermediary pledges.

For example, by 2015 they wanted to build a ‘five million strong’ football family and be ranked in the top 10 in the world.

By 2030, they wanted to increase their football family to eight million, make sure their team qualifies for every FIFA World Cups and finish in the top four at least once.

Japan fans celebrate outside the Lusail stadium with pictures of their coach Hajime Moriyasu

To accomplish these goals, the JFA focused on their football league, which was still an amateur league up until 1991.

The professional J League began in 1992 but an economic crisis in 1997 stem the early momentum of that league.

After the pledge was made in 2005, a concentrated effort was made to improve the league. As a result, J League is now arguably the top league in Asia, with three tiers and 60 teams taking part.

The popularity of the J League has also helped football gain popularity in Japan, making it the second most popular sport in the country behind baseball.

Success in men’s football was still scarce, as becoming champion in the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 being their best achievement in the last two decades.

Japan are yet to go beyond the round of 16 stage in the World Cup. But for a team that qualified for their first ever World Cup in 1998, to be playing in its seventh straight World Cup is no mean feat.

In Qatar, the Blue Samurai will have a chance to achieve their biggest success in the World Cup, if they can cause one more ‘upset’ and defeat former World Cup finalist Croatia.

However, even if they fail to do so, their wins over Spain and Germany are enough proof that Japan is on track to fulfilling its pledge.

Bangladesh’s ill-fated ‘Vision 2022’

On 14 June, 2014, BFF president Kazi Salahuddin announced his ‘Vision 2022’, where he declared that by 2022, Bangladesh will play in the FIFA World Cup.

Since then, Bangladesh men’s team have further dropped in the rankings and are currently ranked at 192, have failed to win any significant international trophy, and are yet to feature in the Asian Cup, forget the FIFA World Cup.

The reason behind this slump is also quite obvious.

Unlike the JFA, the BFF didn’t have any actual plans. The BFF couldn’t improve the premier league’s quality, end corruption at lower leagues, find and nurture new players or make any significant infrastructural progress.

BFF president Kazi Salahuddin, World Cup winning French midfielder Christian Karembeu and other BFF officials pose with the FIFA World Cup trophy at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on 8 June 2022.
Prothom Alo

The announcement from Salahuddin was just a meaningless announcement, which prompted no action.

Japan, on the other hand, is showing how through long-term planning a country can take strides in the football world.

Unlike Japan, football already has a huge fan base in Bangladesh. All the country needs is proper planning and authorities who can see those plans through.

If we can’t find the right people for the role in Bangladesh, perhaps we should do what we are doing in most of our ongoing megaprojects, hire people from Japan and tell them to build us a proper football culture.