Asian Football Interviews

“ASEAN Football Is More Exciting” – Ultra-Nippon Leader Asahi Ueda Targets Southeast Asia

If you haven’t already, do catch Part 1 of this two-part series on Junpiter Futbol. In that article, I discuss Ueda’s beginning as an Ultra and Japanese football’s development in the 1980s and 1990s through his lens.

The Decline of Japanese Football Enthusiasm

When Japan finally reached the World Cup in 1998, it was a momentous occasion for the East Asian state. The long-held dream had materialized into reality. Yet, 1997 in many ways also marked the beginning of the end as interest in domestic Japanese football began to decline.

The J.League held high prominence prior to the 1998 World Cup as it was the platform for Japanese footballers to showcase their talents and get selected for the national team. The best Japanese players turned out for J.League sides but since 1998, the best Nippon players gradually left Japan’s shores for greener pastures in Europe.

While most may be delighted that many of their players have gone on to sign with European sides, Ueda shares that this is part of the declining interest problem.

“Let’s say you are a Urawa Red Diamonds fan and a supporter of the Japan National Team. Ultimately, Urawa Red Diamonds are more important for you because they play every week and you will cheer for them regularly. When the national team plays, it may be important but not as important as your club because they will select different players from different clubs. Maybe your favourite Urawa Red Diamonds player was called but he sits on the bench. So, you don’t feel the same thrill. Still, back then, there was some sense of belonging because they did call one or a few of your team’s footballers.”

Image Courtesy of Junpiter Futbol

One only has to look at the current Samurai Blue call-up to realize that only a quarter of the players selected currently ply their trade in the Japanese top flight. Football is undoubtedly one of the most popular sports in the state but heads have naturally turned to Europe with the best Japanese players exported there. Thus, interest in the domestic league has waned.

Unfortunately, it’s a similar story for the bulk of Japan’s international games, which are qualifiers for various competitions.

“In Japan, the quality of football is certainly one of the highest in Asia but there is no clear next step at the international level. Being realistic, Japan will not win the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar and qualification to the World Cup is no longer this unachievable fantasy. It has become too easy that it’s the norm for Japan to breeze through the qualifiers and claim the automatic spot for the World Cup finals.”

Southeast Asia’s Football Rising Potential

Image Credits: Junpiter Futbol

Consequently, Ueda has become disenchanted with Japan’s World Cup qualification matches. They simply don’t have the same thrill as that of the Samurai Blue taking on a high-profile European team. Instead, Ueda is confident that there will be much to be excited about regarding Southeast Asian football. With the number of World Cup teams said to increase in the 2026 edition, there could be at least one team (if not more) from this region making their bow in the most prestigious football tournament.

He reckons that countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia have what it takes to reach the World Cup sooner rather than later, especially with the increase in the number of teams and by extension, berths allocated to the AFC.

“I do admit that the quality of Southeast Asian football may be (relatively) lower than Japan. However, it is so much more exciting and has so much potential to grow. This makes this region very interesting for me in the years to come.”

Image Credits: Junpiter Futbol

In fact, Ueda is shifting his focus to Southeast Asian football and is planning to religiously follow the exploits of ASEAN teams. This year alone, he has clocked several trips to Singapore and Malaysia – including one to Sultan Ibrahim Stadium when the Southern Tigers, JDT, managed to pull off two historic wins over Korean titans Ulsan Hyundai.

“JDT’s wins over Ulsan are signs of things to come. Of course, developments will come slowly but this is a turning point in Southeast Asian football.”

On a separate note, what Ueda shares on the declining interest in J.League is noteworthy because it sheds new light on the J.League Partner Nation scheme and various Memorandums of Understandings (MOUs) that the Japan Football Association (JFA) has signed with Southeast Asian states. The ASEAN bloc is home to nearly 700 million people and is a viable market for Japanese football. One only needs to look at the recent transfer of Pratama Arhan to Tokyo Verdy earlier this year to realize the potential gains for Japanese outfits. When the Indonesian left-back signed, the J2 club’s social media accounts saw a massive surge in followers. Likewise, many Thai football fans have followed the J.League for the past few years with Chanathip Songkrasin and previously others like Teerasil Dangda gracing the league – a trend that Ueda is all too familiar with.

“Even though there are a few Thai players in J.League, they’re some of the best in the nation and that’s why Thai people watch the J.League. It’s similar to how it was like 20 years ago when Hidetoshi Nakata moved to Perugia, a team then in the Serie A. Following his transfer, many Japanese football fans started to watch Serie A. It’s almost identical to what’s happening with Thai fans and Chanathip.”

A Man Of Many Hats But Football is Always In His Heart

What makes Asahi Ueda a remarkable character is how football has become a vehicle to branch into various industries.

“Movies and music are two important elements for football supporters. I’ve made football movies and released various football songs as well.”

On top of that, Ueda also launched his own football store, Bombonera, in Tokyo. Named after the iconic home ground of Argentinian titans Boca Juniors that he visited as a University student, it’s a football store dedicated to football fans. However, Bombonera is more than a football store, it became a hub for Japanese football fans to gather together. Ueda sold many blue shirts with the number ‘12’ emblazoned on the back and this number has special significance to the leader of Ultra-Nippon.

“I remember going to Holland for one national team training camp and the coach at the time was Dutch manager Hans Ooft. While the players were training, I recall talking to some people near the pitch and out of nowhere, the ball suddenly hit me. Stunned, I asked out loud and was looking for the culprit that kicked the ball towards me. Watching this, Hans Ooft laughed and then called me over. He told me in a joking manner that I needed to concentrate on the training as well because I was the 12th man – the supporter. Even though he joked about it, I seriously asked him if he could give me the jersey numbered ‘12’.”

That episode led Ueda to create these blue shirts with ‘12’ on the back to remind the fans that they have a duty to the team as supporters and need to focus on the game.

These are some of the many endeavours that Asahi has undertaken over the past few decades and unsurprisingly, he has amassed a cult following in Japan that’s expanding to other parts of the world. People marvel at his accomplishments and how he has managed to do so much. Yet, while he may be a man of many hats, he wants people to remember him as Asahi Ueda, a simple man who is doing his part for the beautiful game.

Image Credits: Junpiter Futbol

I’m very confident that as Asahi increasingly continues to visit Southeast Asia, it will only be a matter of time before he launches something here as well.

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