TOKYO — Argentine great Osvaldo "Ossie" Ardiles urged J-League clubs to spend big to lure the "very, very best" -- even Barcelona's Lionel Messi -- and warned they were now losing out to deep-pocketed China.
The World Cup-winner and Tottenham Hotspur cult hero said the Japanese top division was very different from its glory days, when top stars such as Zico, Dunga and Gary Lineker went there late in their careers.
He said Japan's players needed to learn from the best if the four-time Asian champions, who are currently ranked 30 and reached the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup, are to make the leap into the elite group of football nations.
"I'm exaggerating a bit but that'll be the idea," Ardiles said at a dinner with reporters in Tokyo, referring to the idea of bringing Messi to Japan. "They (players) should be copying the very, very best."
"In the last 20 years, Japanese players improved more than in 100 years before," added Ardiles, who is now coaching second-division Machida Zelvia in Tokyo's suburbs.
"Why, because they were playing all the time with top, top players. They were playing against Dunga, Jorginho, Ramon Diaz, Gary Lineker, Zico etc.
"Who is the best player right now among foreigners (in Japan)? When you put this player in international level, he's not Jorginho or Zico."
But Ardiles said China was now following the Japanese model after Shanghai Shenhua signed ex-Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, and started pursuing Didier Drogba.
A possible shift in fortunes was highlighted late on Tuesday, when mega-bucks Chinese outfit Guangzhou Evergrande beat Japan's Kashiwa Reysol to top their group in the AFC Champions League.
"In China, Anelka is going. Drogba maybe going. Japan used to be like that but not any more. This is what is needed," Ardiles said.
He admitted it would be difficult for the 20-year-old J-League to sign up big names as it needs to "have even more money".
And with football lagging far behind baseball in popularity, the J-League has struggled to stop declines in gates, TV ratings and sponsorships, while homegrown stars moved to Europe, including Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa.
But it still has 60 players and nine coaches from abroad in its 18-team top flight, despite now competing not only with Europe, but also the Middle East, the United States and the rest of Asia.
"The next step is to be with the elite" such as Brazil, Argentina, England and Spain, Ardiles said. "Japan has now kind of touched the ceiling."
"It is a question of culture," he added. "Football has to be the most powerful sport in Japan."
Ardiles himself blazed a trail for overseas transfers. After winning the 1978 World Cup at home, he played for Tottenham over 10 seasons to pave the way for foreign players to come to the English Premier League.
"The best thing is to perform," said globe-trotting Ardiles, who is now in his fourth coaching stint in Japan and has also worked in Argentina, Croatia, England, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Paraguay and Syria.
"If you don't play any longer, the second best thing is coaching."
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