The launch of the J-League in the early 1990s was seen as the way to revolutionise Japanese football from the levels of semi-professionalism, as the East Asian nation sought to make its mark on the beautiful game, and for football to rival baseball as the most popular team sport in the country. At the time, the representative teams of Saudi Arabia and South Korea were among the strongest in Asia, and other nations sought to become more professional in order to improve their standard of play and catch up. Thus, the J-League was born in 1993.
In the planning stages of the J-League, star players were seen as the perfect way to help launch this new era of domestic football, and at that time there was no bigger name than Gary Lineker. Conversely, there was probably no greater introduction to Asian football for one of the deadliest strikers in the world than running around the then torn up pitch that was Mong Kok Stadium.
Hence, on one fine day in March 1993, goal scorer supreme Gary Lineker, who had graced majestic stadiums like Camp Nou and Old Trafford, came to the old Mong Kok Stadium in all its understated glory, and so began a unique relationship, throughout the nineties, between Hong Kong football and Japanese clubs, but even the “Samurai Blue”, who visited Hong Kong to play in intercontinental competitions.
Gary Lineker at Grampus Eight. Photo: oldschoolpanini.com
In 1992, Nagoya Grampus Eight were amongst the ten founding clubs which formed the basis of the first J-League season that kicked off in the following spring. Grampus Eight were initially founded as the company team of the Toyota Motor Corp and they secured a coup in November 1991, when Lineker agreed to the transfer for two million pounds. The deal was signed whilst Lineker was still playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the relatively newly formed English Premier League. After scoring his final goal for Spurs against Manchester United in May 1992, his time in English football was over. Lineker then moved with his family to Japan to acclimatize to his new club and city.
Nagoya Grampus Eight in their early years. Photo: pesmitidelcalcio.com
With the first round of J-League games being scheduled for May 1993, the newly formed J-League teams were eager to play overseas friendlies and Grampus Eight had the little task of taking on Hong Kong’s then dominant side of the early 90s, Eastern, in the so-called “Mild Seven Cup” at Mongkok Stadium on March 21, 1993.
Ryuzo Hiraki, the first manager of Grampus Eight, was part of the Japan team at the Melbourne Olympics in his younger years. Photo: archive.footballjapan.co.uk
The late Ryuzo Hiraki (平木 隆三 ), a Japanese Hall of Fame footballer, was manager of Grampus Eight at that time and had the difficult task of building a football team from scratch which could also compete for the title. Aside from Lineker, the other two overseas signings at the time included the experienced Dutch goalkeeper Dirk Havenaar, as well as the Brazilian midfielder Jorge Antonio Putinatti, better known as “Jorginho”.
The match highlights between Eastern and Grampus Eight can be seen in the video below.
The mix of seasoned players and their team mates, who had just turned professional, was something which needed to be addressed, so Grampus Eight had a series of overseas games before the inaugural J-League season. These games were meant to give Hiraki’s new team more time to build cohesion and gain experience. The club’s tour encompassed both Australia and Southeast Asia, as well as taking on Leeds United at Elland Road and another game against Lazio Rome, where Lineker would be reunited with Paul Gascoigne. Before coming to Hong Kong, Grampus Eight were in Hobart, Australia, for training camps. The friendly game against Tasmania was at the North Hobart Oval on 13 March 1993, with Nagoya Grampus Eight coming out as comfortable 3-0 winners with goals from Shigeo Sawairi, Jorginho and Tetsuya Asano.
Ryuzo Hiraki (left in red shorts). Photo: archive.footballjapan.co.uk
Grampus Eight manager Hiraki knew the challenge of building team chemistry in such a short period of time and stated in an SCMP interview: ”We had a week together in Japan and then two weeks in Australia, followed by a match in Singapore, so it is impossible to make a good team in that time.”
Their rivals for the Mong Kok match, Eastern, were a tight unit and difficult to defeat, with players like Lee Kin-wo, Tam Sui-wai, Dale Tempest, Lai Law-kau, Ross Greer, Tim O Shea and their goalkeeper, the late Iain Hesford, who once went 827 minutes without conceding a goal for Eastern.
Then Eastern coach Chan Hung-ping was not afraid of the challenge, at least when being asked by the SCMP: ’’I think the most important thing for our team is to play to our standard. Winning or losing is not important, as long as we play to our standard this season.’’
Lineker was still nursing an injury and was actually doubtful to make an appearance at Mong Kok, as there was always the danger that the bumpy pitch would make his injury worse.
He told the SCMP at the time: ”My fitness is not very good at the moment. I am not injured. It’s just that I’ve had a few months off. I was hoping to do more training in England before I left for Japan last weekend, but was held up by a toe operation. There’s still plenty of time to get fully fit for the new season, because we’ve a two-week training camp in Australia and a match in Singapore before we arrive in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place I’ve never been to, but one I’m looking forward to visiting very much. I hope we can give you a good game.’’
Gary Lineker addresses the media in Hong Kong in 1993. Photo: YouTube
The match itself was totally sold out, with the old Mong Kok Stadium and its steel stands filled up with 7,950 fans eager to catch a glimpse of the former England hero and star of Italia 1990.
Eastern were not merely along for the ride and pushed Grampus Eight hard for their win. The ever lethal Dale Tempest scored the opening goal of the game after 33 minutes, though the lead was short-lived as Jorginho scored past reserve keeper Tong Tak-kin, after some nice interplay and passing with Tetsuya Asano. In the eventual penalty shoot-out, Tempest became the fall guy as his decisive penalty was saved by Dutch keeper Havenaar. Grampus Eight proved to be lethal from the 12-yard spot and slotted home all their shots to win the game.
In the end, the injury caught up with Lineker and despite Grampus Eight winning the game on penalties, Lineker could only play in the first half before sitting out the second one. The expectant fans were of course disappointed after all the hype, though they were given glimpse of a new J-League team and a preview of what the J-League had to offer.
At the time, Lineker knew he was letting down the Hong Kong fans who had paid good money to see him play.
”I wanted to watch the second half but I couldn’t get through the crowd,” explained Lineker, who was trapped by hundreds of autograph hunters. I would say I’m only about 60% fit but I didn’t want to let anyone down. There were a lot of people here and I hope I’ve kept a few people happy.”
Hong Kong’s weather and environment are never ideal for pristine pitch conditions and this is something which Lineker picked up on in his short time in Hong Kong.
”It’s very difficult to say how we played because the pitch is so poor. We like to knock the ball about but you couldn’t string three passes together before you got a bad bounce.”
Lineker said both Eastern and Grampus Eight tried to play an entertaining game for the fans and that he tried his best despite his injury.
“Under the circumstances, both teams tried their best. I was carrying a thigh injury and under the circumstances, I would not have played, but I did not really want to let everyone down here, after they had given me such a good welcome, so I did my best to play half a game, even though I could not play 100%.”
Those in attendance at Mong Kok probably had no idea of the football revolution that was soon to engulf Japan and the seismic shift in Asian football that was about to occur.
The Nagoya Grampus Eight World Tour Continues
In a way, those at the stadium saw a little slice of history. Grampus Eight may have been the first ever Japanese professional side to lift silverware and the “Mild Seven” trophy at that. The world tour continued with the Gary Lineker farewell match against a strong Leeds United at Elland Road in front of a disappointing crowd of 10,886. Grampus Eight lost 2-1 that day and it was Jorginho who scored the goal for the visitors.
Leeds Versus Grampus Eight Match Programme
On May 2nd, 1993, Grampus Eight also took on Lazio where Lineker was reunited with his old Spurs and England team mate Paul Gascoigne. Grampus Eight proved their mental strength and calibre with a 2-1 win over the Rome side.
The hard fought win came courtesy of goals in the 46th minute from Tetsuya Asano and the winner from Lineker in the 74th minute. Karl-Heinz Riedle pulled a goal back in the 86th minute, but Grampus Eight held on to record a famous and morale-boosting win.
Grampus Eight Versus Lazio. Newspaper Clipping from www.laziowiki.org
The global tour was vital for Grampus Eight to gain experience and to gauge their levels of competitiveness by standing against other teams from around the world. The more games they played, the more confident they felt. Though for all their build-up, Grampus Eight finished on a disappointing 9th place in the inaugural J-League season, with Verdy Kawasaki taking the title.
Eastern and Tokyo Kawasaki faced off in the Asian Club Championships
Eastern’s dalliance with the J-League’s finest was not over, as they faced Tokyo Verdy (then known as Verdy Kawasaki) over two legs in the 1993–1994 Asian Club Championship. This tournament was the smaller predecessor of the current Asian Champions League, and in the days before complex and complicated co-efficient ranking, Hong Kong teams could enter pretty much unhindered. Verdy Kawasaki were the first J-league champions and subsequently took on the Hong Kong champions Eastern. Wearing their classic three striped Adidas tops, Eastern took the game to the Japanese champions and won the first leg at home 1-0.
However, The reverse fixture on October 27th, 1993, at Tokyo National Stadium proved to be too much for Eastern, and they lost 3-1 with two goals from Bismarck and one from Shinji Fujiyoshi. Eastern dominated Hong Kong football for a couple more seasons, and then began their slow descent down. They were adrift for about two decades before their return to the Hong Kong Premier League. Tokyo Verdy are now one of the biggest and most fanatically supported J-League sides and are ironically managed by former Hong Kong coach Gary White.
Nagoya Grampus Eight Returned to Hong Kong for the Asian Cup Winners Cup
Grampus Eight themselves were not done with Hong Kong and traveled back to its shores for a formal competition when they took on South China in the 1996–97 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup. The two sides met in the quarter-final stages of the East Asian draw in front of nearly 20,000 fans. Grampus Eight were not at full strength for the two legged affair, as they decided not to bring their captain Dragan Stojkovic and Brazilian central defender Carlos Alexandre Torres, with the former still recovering from injury. After winning the first leg 2-0 in Nagoya, the visitors came to Hong Kong Stadium and South China put up a tremendous fight, holding the J-league side to a credible 2-2 draw (overall 4-2 defeat in both legs).
A Changing of the Guard for both Grampus Eight and Asian Football
As for the ‘Lineker’ effect on Japan, he proved to be a great draw for the J-League’s newly found fans, though his time there never hit the true heights of his earlier career. Constantly hindered by his injuries, he scored eight goals in 24 appearances over the course of two seasons and duly retired in 1994.
Nonetheless, Lineker’s Japanese legacy remains intact as he bravely took the jump into the unknown. His exposure in the media raised the profile of the J-League to the general public like hardly any other person could have done at the time.
Arsene Wenger at Grampus Eight. Photo: Twitter
Some would argue that Lineker was not Grampus Eight’s most important signing. That crown, many would argue, belongs to Dragan Stojković (now manager of Guangzhou R&F), who arrived in Japan in 1994, just as Lineker was leaving, almost like the mantle and torch of J-League’s main draw was being passed on from one generation to another. The skillful Serbian was a magnificent midfielder who came from Olympic Marseilles at the height of his powers and transformed his team and the city as he placed Nagoya on the global sporting map.
Stojković’s passion and hard work brought him many individual titles. He was named J-League’s MVP in 1995 and won the Emperor’s Cup in 1995 and 1999. In his short time under Arsene Wenger, Stojković excelled and also learnt some managerial tricks of the trade. Grampus Eight became 2010 J-League champions under the steady hand of the Serbian, a feat that even Arsene Wenger was unable to accomplish and which sealed Stojković’ already god like status in Nagoya.
Dragan Stojković – Grampus Eight Legend. Photo: Twitter
A newly formed Nagoya Grampus Eight taking on Eastern also marked a changing of the guard in East Asian football. Eastern’s dominance in the mid to late nineties was the last truly memorable phase of the domestic Hong Kong league that had boomed and peaked throughout the 1960s, 1970s , 1980s and the earlier 90s.
Football remains the most popular sport in Hong Kong, yet many in Hong Kong would argue that the domestic league, simply ‘exists’ and ‘plods along’ with little to no further development. Despite the work of many hardworking and well-meaning people, the game looks like it will never reach the levels attained in the past.
Meanwhile, the J-League itself began to huge pomp and has been an unrivaled success, which in turn led to the rise of Japanese football on both the international and continental club scene. Legendary players such as Zico also came to Japanese shores. Zico stayed as a player for Kashima Antlers and then became manager of the Japanese national team. The foundations laid in the early years of the J-League has borne continued success for the Japanese national team with new generations of talent constantly rising.
Japan’s 1993 “Tragedy of Doha”
On the wave of popularity from the inception of the J-League, Japan almost qualified for the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA, but in the end they suffered the heartbreaking agony of the “Tragedy of Doha”, where a goal from Iraq in stoppage time denied Japan the win they needed and allowed arch-rivals South Korea to qualify instead. Maybe the greatest loss was that the world never got to see some of Japan’s first real superstars, like ‘King’ Kazu Miura and Ruy Ramos, as only two players from the 1994 campaign remained in the squad for the team which qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France.
‘The Tragedy of Doha’ where Japan’s 1994 World Cup dreams were shattered. Photo: FIFA.com
Miura was the golden boy of football in the Japan and amazingly is still playing at the tender age of 52 with Yokohama FC. He started his career in 1986 when he travelled to Brazil as a 15-year-old and his growth in the nineties could be a mirror of the rise of the J-League.
Kazu Miura. Photo: http://www.kazu-miura.com/
On that fateful night in Doha in 1993, hearts were broken and dreams were destroyed, yet in the genesis of anything, there are always going to be obstacles and set-backs. Arguably, the experience has ‘haunted’ both fans and players, and since then it may have pushed the national team to excel for the last few decades, lest they ever experience such agony again.
Japan win the 1995 Dynasty Cup in Hong Kong
In the nineties, as Japanese football grew and became more popular, the Japanese national team came to Hong Kong on several occasions, most notably for the 1995 Dynasty Cup (now the EAFF Championship), which was hosted in Hong Kong in February of that year. The tournament back then was taken very seriously as regional pride was at stake. All the teams sent their strongest squads and that year Japan played China at Mong Kok Stadium.
Japan were the eventual champions after defeating Hong Kong (3-0) and China (2-1), while drawing 1-1 with South Korea in the group stages. Eventually, they beat South Korea in the final. All the games were well attended as the games were ultra-competitive and sides like South Korea were among the best in Asian football.
Hong Kong Versus Japan Game Highlights (Parts 1 to 3)
Hong Kong were no mere pushovers and remained competitive throughout the competition, drawing with China 0-0 in the group stage and pushing South Korea all the way, but eventually succumbing 3-2 at Mong Kok Stadium in a very memorable and exciting game.
Japan then played South Korea in the final in-front of 27,668 at Hong Kong Stadium and defeated the Koreans 5-3 on penalties, with Masami Ihara scoring the decisive shot. In a famous victory, Hong Kong also defeated China 3-1 on penalties, with Leslie Santos, Tim Bredbury and Tam Siu-wai scoring from the spot. The fleet footed and magnificently skilled midfielder Leslie Santos was the only Hong Kong player to be named in the ‘Team of the Tournament’ squad.
The Dynasty Cup is still alive and well in the form of the EAFF Championship, and this December Hong Kong will travel to South Korea to take on the same three teams. If they can rekindle the spirit of 1995, they may gain some positive results under the guidance of manager Mixu Paatelainen.
Grampus Eight witness the J-League Revolution
As for Grampus Eight, as a founding team of the J-League they have had a front row seat to the football revolution that continues to sweep Japan today. Football has risen in popularity, and while baseball continues to be the most popular team sport, football comes a very close second. Grampus Eight themselves went on from strength to strength, and soon a new manager by the name of Arsene Wenger took the reigns of the club. The future Arsenal manager was not in charge for long in Nagoya, but he had an immediate impact. He won the Emperor’s Cup and finished a respectable second in the league. A certain North London club took note of Wenger’s immediate results and the rest is English Premier League history.
For some, the game between Eastern and Nagoya Grampus Eight was just a random friendly, though in reality it signaled the end of an era for Hong Kong football. Like two ships passing in the night, Hong Kong football has since drifted while Japan has enjoyed a never-ending period of success for their clubs and their national team.
Once upon a time, Nagoya Grampus Eight played a random friendly against Eastern at Mong Kok Stadium and Asian football changed forever.