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.

How long until the Asian powerhouse flexes its muscles?

ASIA is the world’s biggest football stadium, with half the world’s fanbase. The potential of the region is enormous, with a growing middle class and economies that can grow faster than many mature markets. In footballing terms, the game is fast-evolving in China, India, South Korea and Japan, along with other countries, and with the next World Cup in the region, the focus on Asia will continue to expand.

In a week in which the UK’s Guardian newspaper asked why there are so few Asian footballers in Britain, the World Football Summit underlined the exciting possibilities for the game in a very diverse and multi-cultural part of the world.

In 2002, the World Cup was held jointly in South Korea and Japan. South Korea reached the semi-finals and Japan the last 16. It was a difficult World Cup in terms of climate and some of the traditional heavyweights underperformed, but there could be no doubting the enthusiasm for the competition in Asia and the quality of some of the continent’s players.

Since 2002, Asia has not performed particularly well in four World Cups and only Japan and South Korea have ventured beyond the group phase. That said, South Korea have produced some good players, notably Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, who has made his mark in the Premier and is valued at around £75 million.

Son’s success has challenged the argument that Asian players do not have the strength to play in the physical Premier League. There have been other reasons – mostly based on stereotyping and cliché – that Asian youngsters had no interest in the game and preferred cricket. According to the Guardian, 60% of British Bangladeshi young boys play football, 47% of British Indians and 36% of British Pakistanis. The issue of integration has also been used as an excuse, but going way back to the 1950s and 1960s, young Asians tried to join sports clubs with little success. In some cases, Asians formed their own football teams.

Asians are fanatical about football and supporters clubs of all the major European clubs proliferate the region. According to Statista, the most popular club in China is Real Madrid with 127 million supporters with Manchester United second with 107 million.

As clubs build global franchises, Asia continues to be a sweet spot for gaining new fans. Indeed, at the World Football Summit, Ned Negus of Football Marketing Asia noted: “We see sponsors around the world clambering to communicate via both local and international assets with those fans. Many sponsoring decisions, here but also in Europe, are based on perceived value in Asia.”

But Asian fans also provide passionate backing for their own clubs. In Japan, for example, the average J-League crowd was over 20,000 in 2019 with teams like Urawa Reds and FC Tokyo drawing over 30,000 per game. South Korea’s top division, the K-League, has smaller crowds, but their clubs fare well on the international stage. In India, social media is an important reflection of growing support for clubs and the leader is Kerala Blasters, with a combined social media audience of approaching five million.

China has grabbed a lot of the headlines with its aggressive move into football, both domestically and in acquiring stakes in western clubs. The Chinese Super League (CSL) continues to attract healthy crowds (average 24,000 in 2019), but there has to be some uncertainty about the future – will the coronavirus stymie the CSL’s progress?

Both South Korea and Japan have enjoyed considerable success in the AFC Champions League. The last Korean side to win the competition was Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016, while Japan had a good run recently with Urawa and Kashima Antlers winning in 2017 and 2018 respectively, before Urawa lost in the 2019 final against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal.

The Asian Cup, the region’s equivalent of the European Championship and Copa America, was expanded in 2019 to 24 teams. The Asian Football Confederation believes the development of the game is facilitated by major tournaments and making the Asian Cup bigger enables the overall quality to improve. The 2019 competition was won by Qatar, who beat Japan in the final. The host nation was the United Arab Emirates where the crowds were disappointing, averaging just 12,633 per match. The problem with the Asian Cup is that crowds fluctuate depending on the location – for example, when it has been held in the Middle East, the attendances have been poor.

If football’s future is poised to be more technology-driven and enhanced by increasing digital connectivity, then Asian football should benefit from the changes ahead. The coronavirus has underlined the true value of technology and the Asian region has hordes of football fans accustomed to technology and they are hungry for more digital interaction. This should make for a vibrant Asian football landscape, one that may yet deliver a national team that can compete with international football’s giants. For all the globalisation of the game, football is still dominated by Europe and South America. The US is trying hard to make an impact, China has ambitions, Africa is still unable to produce a consistently strong team that can get to the latter stages of the World Cup. At the moment, Asia is a huge market for commercial opportunity, but has yet to become the powerhouse it strives to be. In the current circumstances, the continent’s best chance for the big breakthrough may well be in 2022.



Photo: PA