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.

Antlers keep Japanese interest high

THEY WERE little more than the token host nation representative to keep local interest alive, but Kashima Antlers are now one game away from the FIFA Club World Cup final.

The Antlers won their second game in the 2016 competition when they beat Mamelodi Sundowns in the quarter-final game in Osaka. This follows their previous win against Auckland in the preliminary round.

It has been a busy week for the Antlers as they won the J-League only last weekend, beating Urawa Reds in the final.

They showed great resilience against a Mamelodi side that dominated the first period and looked set to claim a semi-final place. But for Antlers’ goalkeeper, Hitoshi Sogahata, who pulled off a string of fine saves, the Japanese would have been beaten by half-time. But like so many African sides in the FIFA Club World Cup, they fell at their first hurdle. The Antlers scored twice in the second half through Yasushi Endo and Mu Kanazaki.

Strangely, Mamelodi coach Pitso Mosimani claimed that Kashima were over-physical, not something usually associated with Japanese teams. “We were a little out-muscled,” he said. “It was a game of two halves…we showed a little bit of inexperience, particularly in the final third.”

The Antlers also demonstrated their character in lifting the J-League title. They came top of the first stage, losing just two of their 17 games, but slipped to 11th in the second phase. Urawa ended top overall and qualified for the play-off, but Kashima had to play Kawasaki Frontale to see who would meet Urawa. They won 1-0.

The first leg of the play-off saw Urawa pull off a 1-0 win in Kashima thanks to a second-half penalty. In the second leg, played before 60,000 people in Saitama, Kashima fell behind to an early goal, but came back to win 2-1, with Mu Kanazaki netting both goals.

Kashima’s coach, Masatada Ishii, the first Japanese to lead the Antlers to the J-League, was overjoyed at his team’s success. “We started this with the duty to win a title and now we’ve achieved that I am truly really happy,” he told the Japanese media.

The J-League play-off format has been universally unpopular and is being abandoned. When they decided to  implement a two-stage season, the media warned it was “courting disaster” and it has done little for the sport’s popularity in Japan. Next season, the J-League will be a 34-game single stage affair, with the top team being declared champions.

As for the FIFA Club World Cup, Kashima become the fifth Japanese side to reach the semi-finals – Urawa 2007, Gamba Osaka 2008, Kashiwa 2011 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2015 have all been there before.

They will face Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, the Libertadores Cup winners, and the club that was due to meet Brazil’s Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericano. Of course, Chapecoense’s team was wiped out by a terrible plane crash.

How the Chapecoense affair affects the Colombians remains to be seen, but it is possible they will have to lift themselves in the aftermath of tragedy. But on arriving in Japan on December 10, their coach, Ronaldo Rueda said: “The best tribute [to Chapecoense] we can give is to play a great tournament and reach the final.”