Charting the rise of Japanese football and how the country's Ultras found their voice

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The international break usually elicits groans from many football fans who consider it an unwelcome distraction from club football, but Copa90‘s series on international football fans across the world is showing just how much fans love seeing their national team play.

Their latest installment took them to a surprise destination: Japan.

Most people wouldn’t associate the Far East giants with the culture of football ultras, but there they are, turning out to support the Samurai Blue with the passion to match ultras all around the world.

Yet the vociferous support are a relatively new phenomenon. Less than 30 years ago, Japan’s national football team, and the country’s entire football culture, was in the doldrums.

They would struggle to arrange friendlies with countries like Malaysia, let alone mix it up with the big boys in Asia. Football in general lagged far behind baseball, Japan’s biggest sport.

1993 is the year that began to change. First, American coach Tom Byer introduced his technical skills teaching program across Japan, to great fanfare, helping raise the profile of the game and leading to a generation of technically skilled football players.

That same year, Japan bid to host the 2002 World Cup, one they would win along with South Korea. And the J-League started in 1993, which slowly created a fan culture based solely on city and regional pride – which would later translate to national pride.

There were setbacks, such as Japan failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA in heartbreaking fashion. But making it the next time around, in France 1998, gave Japanese football another fillip, which was followed by the great success of the 2002 tournament, when the sport took over the country.

Now, of course, the country is one of Asia’s footballing powerhouses, and the fans reflect that. Ultras Nippon grew into a veritable fan army, one that has influenced fan cultures elsewhere in Asia, and football has connected the various subcultures in Japan, from photography to fashion.

Most notable is how female fans have taken to the sport, showing that crazy football fandom is not just a man’s game.

Watch the video above to see the journey of Japanese football and the country’s ultras.

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Barcelona star Gerard Pique 'proud to play for Spain' despite defending Catalan referendum

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Under-fire Gerard Pique on Wednesday expressed his pride at playing for Spain, insisting he would continue with the Spanish national team despite his outspoken defence of the independence referendum in Catalonia.

“It is not incongruous,” said Pique of his intention to carry on despite his views on the wealthy northeastern Spanish region’s right to self-determination.

“I take it to the extreme, I believe that a person wanting independence could play in the Spanish team because there is no Catalan team and because that person has nothing against Spain.”

Pique, who was jeered by onlookers during Spain’s open training on Monday, added: “Why could a person wanting independence not play for the Spanish team? It’s a question I put forward, and it’s not my case. Why could he not?”

The Barcelona central defender on Sunday cast his vote in a referendum deemed constitutionally illegal by Madrid which was scarred by ugly clashes between voters and security forces.

Despite playing a crucial part of the Spain sides that won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Pique is routinely jeered when representing his country.

He has already stated his intent to retire from international football after next year’s World Cup, but insisted he could step aside sooner if Spain coach Julen Lopetegui or the federation believe his political stance to be problematic.

“It is best to continue and accept this challenge of trying to reverse (the criticism),” Pique said Wednesday after having decided against turning his back on Spain.

“I feel very proud to be in the Spanish team… It’s impossible to question my commitment. I’ve been here (in the national set-up) since the age of 15 and consider it as family.”

Pique went on to ask for understanding of his political views.

“We are players, but above all we are humans,” he said. “Humans have opinions and opinions come from our environment, where we live and through the information we get. It’s not possible for us all to think alike.

“I think that through dialogue and respect we always get to the right place.”

Pique added that he spoke to teammates “who think differently from me. In the end we come to the conclusion that there are things that could be worked out, but that’s not for us to do, we’re footballers”.

Spain play Albania in Group G of European qualifying on Friday and Israel three days later, with one win from these final two games likely to be enough to automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia thanks to their far superior goal difference over second-placed Italy.

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Matuidi says 'exceptional' France teammate Mbappe is a future Ballon d'Or winner

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Kylian Mbappe is so good he could one day emulate the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by winning the Ballon d’Or, his France international team-mate Blaise Matuidi said on Tuesday.

While Mbappe and Matuidi have never been club team-mates, the former joining Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco in August only after the latter had left for Juventus, they have lined up on the same team sheet for the national side.

And getting another chance to study Mbappe up close and personal in training at France’s Clairefontaine base ahead of their final two World Cup qualifiers against Bulgaria and Belarus, Matuidi has been impressed.

“Hopefully he’ll keep going the way he has, we’re lucky to have such players in our team, we must make use of them,” said Matuidi.

“He (Mbappe) is someone who can win you a match with his ingenuity.

“He keeps his feet on the ground, that’s what’s so great despite all the talent he could have.

“He’s always keen to work hard, to do more. He’s sure to have a very, very big future.

“I believe he’ll be amongst those who could one day win the Ballon d’Or.”

Matuidi, 30 and capped 58 times, said he hasn’t come across a more precocious talent during his time in the professional game.

“To be honest, no,” he said of the 18-year-old starlet. “At that age, what he’s doing is pretty exceptional.

“He’s a great player – he’s young but he seems like a 30-year-old.”

France lead European qualifying group A by one point going into their final two matches, knowing that a maximum return will guarantee them a place at Russia 2018.

However, any slip up away to Bulgaria on Saturday would likely see them lose top spot to Sweden, who play minnows Luxembourg.

Only the group winners qualify directly for the World Cup, while the runners-up will face a play-off.

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