Japanese clap as their big league scores

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The Independent Online
AT THE National Stadium in Tokyo, the Nissan Yokohama Marinos are playing Yomiuri Verdy in Japan's new professional football J-League. The Marinos supporters are wearing jerseys, scarves and hats in the team's blue colours, and some have painted their faces blue. The confetti, when it comes, is also colour-coded. On the other side of the stadium the Verdy fans are in green.

Before the match, the players run out on to the pitch, line up and bow politely to the crowd. It is the only familiar Japanese gesture of the game. Everything else, from the way the fans dress to the star players on each team, has been imported.

Football has arrived in Japan. A sophisticated marketing and promotion campaign generated something close to national hysteria for the opening of the J- League on 15 May. Since then, games have been booked out, television ratings have been better than anticipated and sales of J- League souvenirs are booming. Gary Lineker came from Britain on a two-year contract, reportedly worth pounds 2m. But he has proved to be a disappointment, scoring only one goal in six matches, then breaking a bone in his foot. His team, Nagoya Grampus Eight, are close to the bottom of the league.

The rest of the J-League, however, has been more resilient, and the fans love it: the theatre of supporters' clubs, of co-ordinated chanting, of showing off the team regalia, of drinking beer with J-League stickers on the can. Many of the supporters would be hard pressed to name the team members, but that does not seem so important: the game is mostly an excuse for thousands of young Japanese to dress up and let off a lot of steam in a wild, but secure, environment.

There is no hint of hooliganism, and half the crowd is female: for many people football has become an ideal dating opportunity. When a Yomiuri Verdy section of the stands start chanting 'Verdy, Verdy', the pitch of their voices is so high it sounds like the Vienna Boys' Choir.

Just before half-time a Marinos forward heads the ball into the Verdy net. The stadium erupts, the big video screen at one end flashes 'Goal goal' and an announcer with the synthesised voice of a video game says - in English, the international touch - Marinos one, Verdy nothing. In real terms, Yomiuri Verdy, the Marinos and the eight other teams in the J-League, are more than just a score line. They are part of a multi-billion-yen scheme to make football a national sport in Japan to rival the current favourite, baseball. J-League has been targeted at 20- to 30- year-olds, and the ultimate goal is to host the 2002 World Cup - for the first time in Asia.

The J-League's mastermind is Saburo Kawabuchi, a 57-year-old former manager of an electricity company, who played for Japan's national team in 1958 and became their manager in 1980. In setting up the J-League, he persuaded 120 companies - including some of the biggest car, airline, electronics and media corporations - to pour in money in exchange for publicity and sponsorship deals.

The league's business structure is modelled on the National Football League in the United States, which centralises decision-making about the design and merchandising of team goods, and sorts out the television rights. Mr Kawabuchi, as J- League chairman, presides over an enormous marketing and franchising organisation that shares out the profits made from sales of J-League goods to the teams.

So far his plan is working: 300,000 people applied for the 40,000 tickets for the opening match of the season. 'Everything is going well, as if we could do no wrong,' he said.

Some critics have predicted that football will be only a fad in Japan, like so much else in this country's effervescent youth culture. They point out that American football enjoyed only two years of high popularity from 1975-76.

But the future of football seemed far from the minds of the fans at the Verdy-Marinos match, as they concentrated on having fun in the present. In the second half, the Marinos' Brazilian sweeper made a thrilling solo run up the left wing and shot past the advancing Verdy goalkeeper. And showing they had not entirely adopted European football culture, both sets of fans applauded the goal.