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JAPAN – A treasure trove of vintage football jerseys can be found just a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, up a flight of stairs in a shop that doubles as a storage room, and through an entrance that seems more like it belongs in a public restroom.

The counter used to be adorned with a Thomas Gravesen statue, but a kind sales associate gave it away to a customer who was very interested in it. The bald, plastic head of the Dane was at odds with the varied mix of colors worn by the teams in the J-League anyhow.

Those few square meters of shop floor encapsulate Japan’s footballing landscape in microcosm. Here, a shirt for the Kashima Antlers or the Yokohama Marinos can sit side-by-side with iconic European jerseys from Milan, Madrid, or Munich.

When the J-League was established in 1993, it attracted players such as Gary Lineker and Zico. It modeled its marketing after that of American sports, and it imported a large portion of its fan culture, including tifos, flags, chants, (relatively friendly) ultras, and mascots. These elements are all embraced by crowds that feature a large number of female followers, and they are all seasoned with a local twist to make attending games

After being in existence for three decades and emerging from limits imposed by COVID on audiences and singing in stadiums, the highest level of competition in the country is now prospering on its own. Average attendance reached a peak of more than 20,000 before the pandemic, and it is currently halfway through a 12-year domestic broadcasting deal worth $2.1 billion (£1.76 billion) with DAZN.

But although the terraces may be saturated with traditions that originated in different parts of the world, a stream of the greatest talent in the country is flowing in the opposite direction.

When Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002, just four members of Japan’s national team were playing their football outside of Japan. Those four players included Junichi Inamoto of Arsenal and Hidetoshi Nakata of Parma.

In Qatar, 19 of the 26 will do so, and that number could have been higher if it weren’t for the unexpected exclusion of Celtic striker Kyogo Furuhashi and a late injury to Huddersfield defender Yuta Nakayama.

“The J-League and its fans are quite happy that they develop this many players who can travel to Europe,” explains Dan Orlowitz of the Japan Times. “The J-League is one of the most competitive leagues in the world.”

“However, it is no longer exceptional; rather, it is rather anticipated. [Italian] Alberto Zaccheroni took over as head coach in 2010, and his motto was ‘move west.'”

The most usual path is to Belgium or Germany, where eight members of the squad are presently playing, including captain Maya Yoshida and Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada. Belgium or Germany is the most common route. And it was against Hans-Dieter Flick’s Germany team that the Samurai Blue began their campaign with a victory on Wednesday, and it was a shocking one at that.

Andres Iniesta, a former World Cup winner who currently plays midfield for Vissel Kobe, told BBC Sport that young Japanese players has talent.

“In my view, not only are they talented, but they also possess a robust physical presence.”

In addition to Japan, Costa Rica and Spain are included in the group that Japan is in. Takefusa Kubo, a 21-year-old midfielder, was born in Spain and trained with Barcelona before moving on to Real Madrid. He is currently playing for Real Sociedad.

Takehiro Tomiyasu, a defender for Arsenal; Kaoru Mitoma, a forward for Brighton; and Takumi Minamino, a forward for Monaco who formerly played for Liverpool; all of these players contribute to a team that is brimming with quality.

They also have a boss that has the best win rate in the country, and that boss’s name is Hajime Moriyasu. Moriyasu is responsible for a notable victory over Germany, which has won the World Cup four times.

Orlowitz, a journalist residing in Tokyo, adds, “There are some who feel Japan might win the whole thing with the correct coaching.” [Citation needed]

“You know what? They’re not wrong. This is the deepest player pool, with the possible exception of a goalie, that the country has ever had.

“The talent is there, and there is a group of world-class players at every position.”

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