Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Indonesia-Japan relations: The soccer dimension

A repost from my article originally published in The Jakarta Post, 18 January 2013

The mid 1980s was arguably the highest point of Indonesia’s soccer history. The national team won gold at the 1987 SEA Games and played in the semifinals of the 1986 Asian Games, only losing to eventual winner South Korea. Indonesia passed the first round of World Cup qualifications with only one loss, finally surrendering to (again) South Korea. And the professional league, Galatama, was attracting hordes of attention as one of the first professional soccer leagues in Asia.

The Nadeshiko winning the World Cup
Around the same time in Japan, soccer was only being played by amateurs. Japan did win the Olympic bronze medal in 1968, but the people’s appetite for the game had dwindled, as baseball took center stage in the country’s sporting culture. It was not until 1993 that the J-League came into existence, to raise the quality of domestic soccer and strengthen the national team.

Japan is now the reigning Asian champion, winning the title four times since the 1990s. Its players are no longer simply known for their fancy hair-dos and publicity value, but also their skills. The national team (nicknamed “The Blue Samurais”) is a regular mainstay in the World Cup, making it to the final 16 round twice. And in 2011, its women’s team made history by winning the World Cup.

Where is Indonesia now? Nowhere near Japan, for sure. I’ll spare you an analysis of the sorry state of our country’s favorite sport.

Today, as we welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it’s hard not to compare the night-and-day outlook of the two countries’ soccer scenes.

Soccer may not feature much in the talks between Prime Minister Abe and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The two leaders will most likely highlight the push for economic partnership, through trade, investment and energy cooperation. They may also discuss the two countries’ contributions to regional peace and stability.

However, the Japanese are Indonesia’s top trading partners, and second-largest investor. They are key partners in Indonesia’s economic development and they’ve managed to do this even as their country faces one economic slump after another. Therefore, while remaining attentive of our economic partnership, the two countries could probably do with some creativity in further strengthening their bilateral relations.

One of the fields worth strengthening is people-to-people contact, through cooperation in sociocultural issues. After all, as President Yudhoyono has often mentioned, people-to-people contacts form the basic foundation of any bilateral cooperation.

Indonesians and Japanese are no strangers. There are around 2,000 Indonesians studying in Japan and close to 180 Japanese students in Indonesia. More than 25,000 Indonesians currently live in Japan, 13,000 of them working as interns. Meanwhile, the Japanese are among the largest expat communities in Indonesia, each year more of their compatriots choose Indonesia as their favorite holiday destination.

Long before Indonesians fell in love with K-Pop, they had already had an affair with Japanese pop culture. When most Americans were still getting cues on Japanese culture from The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi, Indonesians were already hooked on manga, anime and a certain caricature of a naughty kid who likes to prance around without pants. Many Indonesian boys owned an Ultraman or Gundam figurine, and the girls likely owned a Hello Kitty stuffed toy or purse.

With such links already in existence, it is not hard to imagine soccer as an additional factor that can further cement people-to-people contacts.

Unfortunately, Indonesians tend to look too far in search of knowledge on anything related to soccer, turning only to Europe. We even sent our young hopefuls to train in Latin America. Maybe comfort is actually just around the corner. If anything, our love for soccer-themed Captain Tsubasa comics is an indication of our interest in learning a thing or two about soccer from the Japanese.

Indonesians can learn about running soccer clubs like a company, ensuring that the game is not only fun, but also profitable. Indeed, the Japanese had it easier, with corporate culture already instilled among teams that originated as sports clubs for corporations such as Toyota, Sumitomo and Kawasaki. But there are also teams that came up from the grassroots, like Albirex Niigata and Shimizu S-Pulse. Their experience can be a source of inspiration for Indonesians.

In 2011, the Urawa Reds booked US$68.3 million in profits and the Yokohama F. Marinos $44 million. On average, over the years, more than half of the J-League’s First Division teams profited more than $20 million annually. If these Japanese clubs could generate such income from their 127.3 million citizens, then Indonesian clubs should be able to match these stats, considering that our population almost doubles Japan’s.

Currently, the average attendance of Indonesia’s domestic league games is 10,228, far below the J-League’s 17,307. But how can more Indonesians watch domestic soccer, when games are often played on weekday afternoons?

In Japan, more than 50 percent of soccer lovers go to matches with family members, thus making the events a family outing. Hooliganism is unheard of, and within the 23-39 age group, there are more Japanese women in soccer stadiums than men.

The key is to get rid of greed in the Indonesian soccer system. We know very well that our recent problems have stemmed from money issues. Surely there must be enough to go around. If only team owners would actually try to make Indonesian football better, instead of just talking about it, they would realize that money can be made together. Beating each other up for a slice of pie is pathetic, when the opportunity to make the pie bigger is in front of everyone.

Indonesia could also learn from Japan’s experience in building a strong national team. Yes, Japan has had its share of naturalized foreign players, but these days, the Blue Samurais are made up of players who rose from the ranks of Japan’s soccer pyramid. Captain Makoto Hasebe was a high school soccer star before entering the Urawa Reds’ junior team, graduating later to its senior side. Shinji Kagawa, who started when he was only 5, built up his skills in one youth team after another before finally making it big with Cerezo Osaka. Now, they are all big stars in European leagues, and important pillars of the Japanese national team.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, as many more best practices can be absorbed from Japan’s soccer success story.

Me and my favourite Hasebe shirt
When we think about learning from Japan, many tend to imagine something more high-tech, but the truth is that there are other things worth learning from the land of the rising sun. I don’t think most Japanese would mind sharing these experiences and skills. After all, the J-League was created with the mission of, among other things, “contributing to international friendship and exchange”.

Maybe watching Arsenal play an exhibition match at GBK Stadium this year will be fun, but I’m sure that the same can be said of champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and their star, J-League’s player of the year Hisato Sato.

At least, this would provide yet another dimension to the Indonesia-Japan partnership, as we learn to understand each other better as partners in this Asian Century.


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