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Soccer in Japan faces uphill battle

Updated: Wednesday July 03, 2002 09:46 a.m. ET

TOKYO (AP) -- There's no denying the success of the World Cup in Japan.

Japan's national team, which lost all three matches in their World Cup debut four years ago, beat Russia and Tunisia in the opening round and advanced to the round of 16 in the first World Cup held in Asia.

Philippe Troussier's squad captured the imagination of the nation's younger generation and created a sudden surge in soccer's popularity.

Japanese fans also got to see the world's top players competing in a tournament that many consider among the most successful ever held.

Japanese soccer officials hope the success of the World Cup spills over to Japan's domestic soccer J-League and results in a brilliant future for Japanese soccer. History shows that may be a tall order.

"I think the World Cup could have an opposite effect," said sports memorabilia dealer Yoshi Aoki. "When people go back to watching the J-League after a month of watching the World Cup, they'll be even more aware of the huge gap in the level of talent."

The J-League, which shut down for the World Cup on April 21, resumes July 13.

Before the World Cup, surveys showed that baseball was clearly the nation's No. 1 spectator sport, followed by marathons, horse racing and soccer.

Japan's World Cup players may be hip and cool but attendance at J-League games has been steadily decreasing in recent years and J-League games are no longer shown on network television.

Hopes that the World Cup would deliver a blow to the popularity of baseball didn't materialize. Attendance at Central League games for the month of June was up compared to a year ago.

On Wednesday, news of Ichiro Suzuki's selection to the American League's all-star team and Hideo Nomo's victory over Arizona's Randy Johnson filled the front pages of Japan's sports dailies.

Japan's first World Cup soccer victory over Russia drew a viewer rating of 66.1 percent, the highest ever for a soccer game.

But high TV ratings don't always translate into long-term success in Japan. In 1964, the women's volleyball final between Japan and the Soviet Union drew 66.8 percent, the highest rating ever for any TV sporting event in the Tokyo area.

But since then, volleyball has virtually dropped off the Japanese sports radar.

"I think there will be some long-term benefits," said Marty Kuehnert, president of a Tokyo-based sports consulting company. "But I don't see a huge immediate payoff. It's kind of like the Olympics, people get excited for a couple of weeks and then forget about it."

In another example, Japan's hockey officials were hoping the local league would experience a boost in popularity after the '98 Nagano Olympics when Japan's national team took part in a tournament that featured the best players in the world.

Japan's games were sold out and the local fans were thrilled when the host nation posted an upset win over Austria in their last opening-round game but the attraction to hockey was short-lived.

If anything, Japan's hockey league is worse off now than it was before Nagano with attendance lagging and teams struggling for survival. It's possible the J-League could suffer the same fate.

The J-League will also face the daunting task of trying to increase attendance amid tough economic times when Japanese sports fans have less disposable income than in past years.

J-League officials have urged Japan's soccer fans to get out and support the league's teams but it's hard to imagine local games matching the excitement of the World Cup.

Baseball also has history on its side. The J-League has only been around for nine years. Japanese professional baseball dates to the 1930s.

"I think to most Japanese, the World Cup was a once in a lifetime thing," added Kuehnert. "In the coming months, all the talk is going to be about baseball and Ichiro and Nomo."

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