SEOUL -- Nagoya Grampus captain Shigeo Sawairi admitted that, in 1993, he and his teammates were so star-struck by the arrival of Gary Lineker that they applauded the famous English striker even when he arrived for training. Now, it is the turn of Lineker, a hugely influential sports personality in the U.K., to applaud Japanese players.
Much of the change is due to the J. League, which celebrates its 30th birthday in May. Three decades ago Japanese soccer went professional with 10 teams. In 2023, there are 60 in the country's top three leagues. The average attendance for the top tier before the pandemic was over 20,000.