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JFA Website Special

JFA President Looks for Japan to Expand Sphere of Influence

Since his appointment as JFA President in 2002, former J.League Chairman Saburo Kawabuchi has launched various projects in an attempt to improve the JFA's organization, as well as the standard of the game in Japan. This spring, the 70-year-old will add a new concept, "JFA Kokoro Project (Project for Minds)," to the Kids Programme and the JFA Academy projects to form a major three-way project for children. Serving his third term in the presidential chair following his re-election last July, the native of Osaka talked exclusively to JFA Web about these ongoing projects, the contribution the JFA can make to different countries and other topics.

Q: How did you find 2006?

The year 2006 was the first time since making our debut at the World Cup in 1998 that Japanese football failed to meet the expectation of its fans, backers and even the JFA.
You can have a hard time in any sport, but this was certainly the hardest moment for us after having made steady growth since France 1998.
But it has been only 13 years since we narrowly failed to qualify for the World Cup in the so-called “Tragedy in Doha” in 1993, and we are still young in terms of our experience at the top international level. You cannot expect to gain so much in the space of just 13 years; this is a good lesson for us. We will always have ups and downs along the way, but if we can take them in a positive manner and make steps forward, we will be alright.

Q: Apart from the performances of the national team in Germany last summer, all the projects you have worked on since you became JFA President in 2002 have started showing development. How do you look at these parts?

I cannot avoid talking about the national team as that is the central focus of our fans. However, national team matters are only one of the tasks I must take care of at the JFA. More importantly, as JFA President I have to work on football development and promotion, in addition to executing various projects in the country called "Presidential Missions."
Having worked on these projects over the last four years, I have no doubt that each of them has become firmly established, and will have a big and positive influence on the development of Japanese football in the future. So, I think we are making steady progress ? better than I thought.

Q: Could you tell us more about these projects?

All of our 47 prefectural football associations are expected to be incorporated by the end of this year. When I started, those that were capable would have been in single digits. Most of them now have their own regular staff. These changes indicate an improvement in their organization and approach to their work.
We have 23 sports facilities thanks to various 2002 World Cup commemorative projects and will in the future be in a position to build similar facilities in other parts of the country even after we finish our 2002 World Cup surplus. We have also established an education system for sports managers. I am convinced that, looking ahead five or 10 years, we are steadily taking steps forward to make our future better.

Q: You have given high priority to the "Kids Programme" and "JFA Academy" among your Presidential Missions, and the significance of these projects seems to have increased following Japan’s performance at the 2006 World Cup. What would you say to that?

I know some people have criticized our government's educational system because of Japan's poor performance in Germany, and many said that they thought our mentality when playing was not strong. But that sounds like a rash conclusion, and I don’t look at it that way. In the past, even when our skills were poor, we still had a high level of fighting spirit.
Even so, it may be hard to bring about a drastic change in the mentality of our players if we don't work on that specifically. Through the Kids Programme and the JFA Academy system, we have started producing some good results, and I am sure these projects can provide an opportunity to improve our football 10 years from now.

Q: I understand you have received positive feedback from educational institutions and administrative bodies about those projects?

That's about our new project: "JFA Kokoro Project (Project for Minds)."
This will be launched in April based on requests from school boards. Through this project, we will attempt to cultivate children's sociability, humanity and aesthetic sentiments.
These days, with changes in people's lifestyles, Japanese children are often said to lack patience, endurance and the spirit of self-sacrifice for others. Now, they tend to stay home alone instead of playing outside with their friends.
Football is a team sport and can help children cultivate these mental aspects. In games, you get situations such as, "This boy is not good at this particular play but can work well if someone covers him from behind," or, "You can make him play better by doing this although that won't put you in the spotlight." I think we are obliged to be more involved in such matters, taking advantage of the nature of our sport.
We can start "JFA Kokoro Project (Project for Minds)" in our world of football and establish the basics of the system for the project. But later on, it would be better if we were joined by other sports organizations in fostering the humanity of children. Sport is the best tool to get children to think about these mental aspects in a natural way. They can learn things as they enjoy playing games.

Q: How do you actually operate the project?

We are planning to send J.League players or former J.League players to schools, and they will tell some stories, in accordance with the curriculum we are making, which will include failures they have experienced as well as their dreams. We have already received a good number of requests from school boards across the nation, but will start this project in certain areas of Tokyo, Yokohama City and Saitama City as a model case before spreading it across the nation. This will be our lifetime project; it will go on as long as football is there.

Q: Making international contributions is another subject the JFA have been working on, and the JFA are taking the leadership in reforming the Asian Champions League. What do you think Japan can do for the rest of Asia and the world?

Japan is often recognized as the best place for organization in Asia, and the J.League and our association are regarded as good examples from which people can learn organizational skills. This shows the high expectations people have of Japan and makes me feel very much that we’d love to make a good contribution to Asia. In the old days, it was Asia that raised the level of Japan and our national team; now it's time for us to do something in return for their assistance and kindness.
However, I don't want to do that in a similar fashion to the way Japan effected an "offer-of-money-but-no-work" contribution to the United Nations. Our contribution to Asia has to be done in a way that can raise the overall reputation of Japan, and that requires us offering advice as well as financial assistance.
To reform the ACL, over the next 18 months we will visit every country in Asia to closely check their league and club organizations. Then we are going to demonstrate to all of them what we feel they should do and the direction they should go in.
In addition to reforming the ACL, we are also going to help Asian countries launch professional leagues, if they don't have one, or help improve their pro league if they do have one.
This January, we established the AFC Professional League Project within our association ? directly under my control ? in order to start this assistance project.
The project team consists of 15 members, including two leaders ? our International Department manager, Takashi Matsunaga, and Tokuaki Suzuki, general manager of our Presidential Office for Special Duty ? and J.League Managing Director Kazuki Sasaki as a pro league expert.
Some of these countries may feel there is a big gap between their own reality and their goals, but this will be an important step in raising overall standards in Asia. By knowing where to go, countries ranked 46th, 47th or wherever can work hard to fill in any gaps in their organization.

Q: With the launch of the FIFA Club World Cup, the ACL now has a vital bridge to the international stage.

That’s right. These two tournaments mean a lot, and clubs will work harder as they dreaming of playing on the world stage.

Q: Having hosted the FIFA Club World Cup for the past two years, how has the tournament affected Japanese football?

Now people understand that becoming Asian champions leads directly to the Club World Cup. That makes the clubs and their fans think, "We've got to try harder to win the ACL." That's the biggest benefit from the launch of the tournament.
If they fail to win the ACL, the fans and the media will complain more. They might say: "How come you can't win that?" "No victories? Isn't that pathetic?" Then, it will start to make them wonder, "Is the J.League, with the best attendance figures in Asia, really the top league in Asia? Even though, it's been said that our management and organizational skills are the best?" The start of the Club World Cup has put the clubs under intense pressure, but that's really given me great support in terms of improving the level of our game.

Q: What will be your major project focus in 2007?

We will continue working on our Presidential Missions projects, working out the details and being positive. In the meantime, we'd like to have a good start with the "JFA Kokoro Project (Project for Minds)" and gain positive recognition among the people.