Interview: The Past, Present and Future of the Football Exchanges Between Southeast Asia and Japan
A major historic change in the relationship between Japan and ASEAN
TASHIMA Kohzo (hereinafter Tashima): After winning a bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, Japan's football entered an era of continued losses during the 70s and 80s against ASEAN nations such as Malaysia and Singapore. From that point up until the present, there were several milestones that included the reformation of youth football, coach education and the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea / Japan.
TAKECHI Yukinori (hereinafter Takechi): At present, Japanese coaches and referee instructors are dispatched abroad in Asia through organizations like Japan Football Association and the Japan Foundation Asia Center.
Tashima: One of those people is Mr. Koga.
KOGA Takuma（hereinafter Koga）: I began my coaching career as a youth team coach of Cerezo Osaka, and from 2011, Japan Football Association sent me abroad for 9 years to serve as a coach in Singapore, Timor-Leste and Myanmar.
Tashima: Amid their remarkable economic development, the ASEAN nations are also putting a lot of effort into football. Those countries that were overwhelmingly stronger than Japan in the past are now sensing some real momentum from Japan. There are many Japanese players playing in ASEAN countries. And a number of Japanese individuals are serving as head coaches, including Akira Nishino in Thailand, Tatsuma Yoshida in Singapore, and Keisuke Honda in Cambodia. For the 2021 AFC U-19 Championship to be held in Uzbekistan, the five teams from Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos qualified. This was a truly historic event.
Takechi: It's amazing, isn't it?
Tashima: After Thailand lost to Cambodia, we got a call requesting a Japanese head coach for Thailand's youth team. The rivalry is fierce between the countries and Japan is rated highly. In the future, these countries could be participating in the World Cup. In fact, there's even a move towards co-hosting the World Cup among ASEAN nations.
Takechi: Mr. Tashima, you often mention that the strength of teams from Europe and South America is built on their highly-competitive matches fought in qualifiers where even teams from the Netherlands and France have failed to qualify.
Tashima: To win on the international stage, we must work hard to raise Asia's level. Raising Asia's level will always have a good effect on Japan. What's fascinating is that the people like Mr. Koga who return to Japan after getting experience as a coach abroad in Asia show outstanding growth.
Takechi: Was it actually tough?
Koga: It wasn't actually that stressful for me, and I had a lot of fun. There was pressure of course, but it was worthwhile. You really feel joy as a coach when a player that you trained is chosen to represent their country after a few years.
Takechi: It almost sounds like you're sowing seeds. I understand that those players are also invited to Japan for exchange.
Koga: Together with the Japan Foundation Asia Center we hosted the "JapaFunCup" where the U-18 Southeast Asia all-star team had a friendly match against the U-18 Tohoku Selection Team. Everybody was surprised by the high level of the players. There were a lot of talented players, led especially by players from Thailand and Vietnam.
Continue with what we can do now—broadening the base, and raising the summit
Takechi: I'd like to hear what you think about the role of football in the COVID-19 era as well as the role of exchanges with Asia and the world.
Koga: I believe we should continue with what can be done. Of course, dispatching players is important, but we must also improve our coach education. This will raise both the level of coaches and players in Asia.
Tashima: When a good coach trains young players, it expands the base of the football pyramid and raises the top level as a result. Bringing a famous head coach in to strengthen national team players is becoming a thing of the past.
Koga: I believe that changes in the ways of thinking in the ASEAN nations have allowed us to dispatch Japanese coaches.
Takechi: It's become a difficult time for exchange. How do we get over this rough period?
Tashima: Although it's tough to have overseas matches, there are league matches within Japan. Now is the time for us all to raise the levels of our own teams, and also to train our young players and our coaches.
Koga: And promoting grassroots development is important as well.
Tashima: At present, the coaches for youth development cannot be dispatched so they're instructing through an online platform. I really hope they can train in-person again soon. Today, I feel again that we should always keep in mind the expectations they have for Japan.
Takechi: A high-performing, winning Japan earns the trust of ASEAN nations.
Tashima: Thanks to the Japan Foundation, we can dispatch coaches and even welcome them into Japan. I sincerely hope to continue these exchanges in the future.