Japan is Asia's top football nation and a big part of why is the country's heavy focus on the game in high schools.
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2 Feb 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2014 - 4:59 PM

The poster advertising the tournament features what appears to be a player booting a ball from one end of the pitch to the other in a pose that looks more like a rugby scrum-half or NFL punter than a footballer.

It’s hardly representative of the standard on offer.

High School football rarely comes across as a 'sexy offering’ in a world saturated by glossy professional leagues but the annual winter tournament in Japan has risen to such a standard that it now attracts interest from scouts across the region and beyond and is widely recognised as one of the premier breeding grounds for not just J.League clubs but also the Japanese national team.

The roll call of recent graduates is an impressive one: national team regulars Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Okazaki, as well as several European-based players like Bundesliga pair Genki Omae and Takashi Inui and Arsenal’s Ryo Miyaichi have all graced the tournament in recent years.

Yet, more than just a football competition the winter classic is an institution in its own right.

Both the opening and closing matches – at Tokyo’s National Stadium – attracted crowds of almost 40,000 and many of the other fixtures were completely sold out.

This includes each school bringing thousands of students who act as large-scale support squads often replete with marching bands and cheerleaders.

The tournament is broadcast live on national television, there’s a range of merchandise – featuring keyrings and pennants of each of the 48 schools – that had all but sold out by the day of the final and there have been numerous books, films and even video games spun off from the event over the 91 years it’s been running.

Yet at the centre of all the pomp is a serious tournament and a fascinating mix of styles that showcases some serious talent.

With the regional qualifiers played throughout the summer, the top side from each of the nation’s 47 prefectures, plus a pair of Tokyo entrants, gather in the capital for a three-week knockout finals tournament that makes front-page news throughout the country.

While baseball may still have claims to the hearts of the older generation of Japanese there’s no doubt that football has won the youth battle – walk through any park on most days of the year and the chances are you’ll see high-school students kicking a football rather than swinging a bat.

Although the J.League clubs have been playing an increasingly influential role in youth development, much of the talent now emanating from Asia’s top-ranked nation has come through the school system; indeed 19 of the 23 players from the 2010 World Cup squad were all products of the system.

Along with the sport’s rising popularity has emerged countless specialist football high schools throughout the country – and it’s here that much of the nation’s talent is nurtured.

Unlike the situation in Australia – and many other nations – youth coaching is viewed and respected as a specialist field in Japan and there are high schools coaches who are more widely known to the general public than several J.League bosses.

As with most layers of Japanese school life once football is undertaken seriously, nothing is shirked.

Just ask Socceroos defender Jason Davidson how tough it is.

Players must adhere to a strict training – and personal – routine that often crosses certain boundaries.

Ten years ago, when I first attended the high school football tournament in Tokyo, I met a German guy who was an assistant coach at one of the most renowned schools in the country – Kunimi – in the south of the country.

Two weeks later he called me to say he’d quit because he couldn’t endure any longer what was happening to the players – the coaching staff would deny the students access to mobile phones, any form of junk food and from having girlfriends.

They also had to cut their hair exactly the same, in a short-crop military style.

If any player broke rank the entire squad was punished and this often took the form of players being forced to remove their boots and then being struck across the face with them.

Such behaviour still occurs at many football schools throughout Japan.

There’s rigidity and there’s discipline but there’s also a single-minded belief from many of the students I’ve spoken to of knowing exactly what they want and being prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to reach those goals.

This year, for the first time, the final was halted by snow and the two teams – both from the far reaches of the country – had to remain in the capital for an extra week as the match was rescheduled.

Far from complaining both took to snow-covered fields for the next several days under the watch of a platoon of Japanese media, not once complaining about the situation.

Technically, things have also changed immensely over the past decade or so with a flourishing view – almost across the board – of trying to play 'attractive’ football.

The standard on display in recent years has often been mixed but a hallmark of all the matches I saw this year was a supreme level of technical and tactical capability – sides able to maintain possession at length, patience to wait for the right moment to drive forward and an inherent ability to dictate the tempo of a match.

It was, in several instances, better than the standard on display at A-League level.

Football fans, and no longer just those in Asia, are asking just why Japan has risen so far, so fast.

Anyone who has the chance to come to Tokyo in the first few weeks of the New Year knows exactly why.