Kawasaki Frontale’s pursuit of Asian success

JAPANESE football is currently being dominated by a team from Greater Tokyo that seems to have hit on a formula for consistent success. Kawasaki Frontale won the J-League for the fourth time in five years in December and have won six trophies in that period, also securing the Emperor’s Cup and J-League Cup.

The one major trophy that has eluded them is the AFC Champions League, a competition in which they have never gone beyond the last eight. In 2021, a year that saw them lose just twice in the J-League, they reached the round of 16, going out to South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai on penalties.

The 2021 campaign saw them win the title by a margin of 13 points with Yokohama Marinos in second place, five less than the 18 that separated them from Gamba Osaka in 2020. Pundits are calling them the J-League’s greatest ever team, and with 54 wins out of a possible 72 over two seasons and five defeats, it is hard to disagree.

Kawasaki’s rise really gathered momentum when coach Toru Oniki was appointed in 2017. Since he took over, they have won four J-League titles, playing an attacking brand of football. Oniki is an advocate of producing attractive football that pleases both the fans and the players. While this has resulted in over 80 goals in each of the past two campaigns, Oniki has also made Kawasaki’s defence more robust.

Oniki is a Kawasaki man through and through. He played for the club, coached at youth level and then became assistant manager. Given his youth connection, it is no surprise Kawasaki have become very proficient at bringing on young players and introducing them into the first team. One of the club’s recent exports was Kaoru Mitoma, who joined Brighton in August 2021 and is currently on loan to Belgium’s Union Saint-Gilloise. Celtic signed Reo Hatate from Kawasaki at the end of December 2021 and he has since made his Scottish Premiership debut for the club. Hatate has impressed since arriving in Scotland, which can only enhance the reputation of the club as a producer of talent.

Although the Kawasaki squad is a blend of youth and experience and is overwhelmingly Japanese, they do have four Brazilians and the most experienced of the quartet, Leandro Damião, was their top scorer in 2021 with 31 goals in all competitions. Such was the club’s domination of the J-League in 2021 that seven of their team made the Best XI for the season: Miki Yamane; Jesiel, Shogo Taniguchi, Akihiro Ienaga, Yasuto Wakizaka, Damião (the league’s most valuable player) and Hatate.

The next stage for Kawasaki, aside from expanding their Todoroki stadium beyond its 26,000 capacity, is to make their name and develop their brand across Asia. Outside of Japan, they are a relatively unknown quantity and they know that AFC Champions League success will broaden their profile. The most recent Japanese clubs to win the competition were Urawa Reds in 2017 and Kashima Antlers a year later. The draw for 2022 is taking shape and Kawasaki already know two of their three group opponents, China’s Guangzhou and Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia.

Success in the Champions League is a challenge, especially as the competition has a group of clubs that know excactly how to negotiate their way through to the latter stages, such as holder Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea and Iran’s Persepolis. The bid to become an Asian powerhouse is a priority for the Kawasaki Frontale. If they succeed, more people will be aware of the Fujitsu-owned club from south of Tokyo.

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