Kashima Antlers and Verdy Kawasaki — J. League, 1993

1992-93 saw the inauguration of three new leagues that would reshape football — Premier, Champions, and J. While the first two have turned teenagers into millionaires and generally skewed the playing field with their mix of glamour and inequality, it is easy to forget that Japan — and its first ever attempt at a professional league — was initially where all the money was. The formative years attracted a host of global names born just that little bit too early for the European gold rush. Some, like the toe-knacked Gary Lineker, couldn't quite live up to the hype. Others, such as Dunga at Júbilo Iwata and Dragan Stojković, Lineker's effective successor at Nagoya Grampus Eight, left an inspirational, lasting legacy. And then there was Zico.

Having quickly tired of a post-playing career dabble with politics, the Brazilian Minister of Sports required little persuasion from J. League organisers to come out of retirement for their new project. So keen, in fact, was Zico that he turned up a year early and accepted a posting far from the neon signs in the small coastal town of Kashima. The local team, Sumitomo Metals, had spent all but three years of their existence competing in the second division of the corporate Japan Soccer League (JSL) — where Brazil's second greatest No 10 would score 21 goals in 22 games played in front of three-figure crowds. While doing so, he exercised his own brand of tough love to kindle in his new teammates the technique, discipline, and community responsibility they would soon require as Antlers.

Following a warm-up tournament in autumn 1992, the opening weekend of the fully professional era pitted its two biggest overseas stars against each other. It was no contest: Kashima spanked Nagoya 5-0. While Lineker saw little of the ball, Zico — by then aged 40 — scored the league's first hat-trick; two goals from close range sandwiching a typically glorious free-kick fired in off the angle. 

Antlers had an instant hero and, more importantly, a muse. A niggling thigh injury picked up during a 3-2 win over Yokohama Flügels seven days later ruled Zico out for much of the league's first stage, but his determination to make a difference was undiminished. He came in to take training; brilliantly eschewing Japan's traditional respect for authority by effectively casting his boss, Masakatsu Miyamoto, aside and telling reporters, "I think of myself as the manager." After an extra-time loss against the title favourites Verdy Kawasaki, Kashima prepared for the rematch with a run of six wins in seven games thanks largely to seven goals from Alcindo — a former teammate of Zico at Flamengo and beloved of fans for a balding mullet they said resembled a kappa (a mythical Japanese water sprite).

The ‘manager' returned to the starting XI for the crucial top-two encounter and roused Kashima into a 2-0 lead within 27 minutes — beautifully splitting the visitors' defence with a first-time, side-footed pass for Alcindo to net the second. Needing victory to bring themselves within one game [back then, wins and losses were counted as in US sports, rather than points being accumulated] of their opponents at the summit, Verdy fought back after half-time to level with quarter of an hour remaining, but the substitute midfielder Satoshi Koga struck a dramatic late winner to put Antlers on the brink. Two weeks later, they were crowned the first ever J. League winners.

Of course, it was only the apertura title (nobody actually called it that, but ‘Suntory Series' just isn't as sexy), meaning a playoff for the overall championship against the runaway clausura (Nicos Series) winners, Verdy. Zico had contributed six goals in eleven appearances during the second stage but was angered by the decision to host both legs at the National Stadium in Tokyo, which the nominally Kawasaki-based club had used as a secondary home all season. His frustrations over the perceived bias came to a head when, trailing 3-2 on aggregate, Kashima had a highly questionable penalty awarded against them late on. Uncharacteristically, the Brazilian raged at the referee, spat on the ball and was sent off. Verdy were the champions, but the story was still all Zico's.

Yanmar Diesel — Japan Soccer League, 1974

Golden-goal extra time, penalty shootouts, and championship playoffs — alongside the teams' unusual names, loud kits and typically kawaii (cute) mascots — were all seen as desirable quirks which, initially, could help stimulate popular excitement in the new J. League. Its forerunner, the JSL, was similarly idiosyncratic in its corporate nature — strictly amateur, but really quasi-semi-professional as all players (and many ‘fans') were paid employees of the corresponding companies. Some enjoyed successful careers in business or engineering; others were recruited largely for their playing abilities but forced to sit idly at their desks from nine o'clock to keep up appearances.

But the competition was pure (home-and-away round robin, two points for a win, one for a draw) and, after the Japanese national team surprisingly took bronze at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, it briefly threatened to draw public attention away from baseball. The biggest attraction was Kunishige Kamamoto, a robust, precociously gifted forward who had earned global acclaim with seven goals in Mexico to finish as top scorer. Despite a lengthy struggle with hepatitis thereafter, Kamamoto still managed to lead the JSL goalscoring charts in both 1971 and 1972. Ahead of the 1974 season, he finally declared himself fighting fit and ready to abandon the midfield role that had been forced upon him to "focus solely on being a striker" again.

Both Kamamoto and his club, the Kansai-based Yanmar Diesel, began the campaign in modest fashion as just five points were collected from the opening six Sundays. But with Nelson Yoshimura, born in Brazil to Japanese parents, starring as his foil, confidence was restored as the big (in Japan) number nine netted twice in a hard-fought 3-1 victory away to Nippon Kokan. Yanmar promptly defeated the early pacesetters Hitachi 3-2 in Kyoto before routing Furukawa Electric 8-2 — Kamamoto got four — to enter the mid-season break in second; a point behind Hitachi and level with three other rivals, including the title-holders Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

A four-month summer hiatus proved little hindrance. Kamamoto helped Yanmar into top spot with a hat-trick against Toyota, before becoming the first and only player to reach 100 JSL goals, in a crucial 3-1 success over Mitsubishi. The winning streak was eventually stretched to seven, during which Kamamoto found the net an improbable 15 times. However, a saved penalty against mid-table Toyo Kogyo triggered a temporary loss of mojo and Yanmar fell two points adrift of the reigning champions with two games to play.

The tables turned once again on matchday 17 of 18, with the Toyo goalkeeper Koji Funamoto denying Kamamoto's Olympic teammate — and future Japan boss — Takaji Mori from the spot as Mitsubishi sank to a surprise 2-1 defeat. Still out of sorts, Yanmar were dominated by a greatly-improved Furukawa, but somehow mustered the resolve to fight back from 1-0 down with two goals in the last 20 minutes. They travelled to lowly Eidai on the final Sunday with a goal-difference advantage of three, while their rivals faced a tricky meeting with third-placed Hitachi.

Both matches kicked off on the stroke of two. At 2.33, Masatoshi Matsunaga netted the opener for Mitsubishi, just as a nervy Yanmar fell a goal behind. But Kamamoto made it a personal mission to ensure that his earlier feats were not in vain; forcing the ball home twice, either side of half-time, and laying on a decisive third for Hiroo Abe. The new champions eventually won 4-2; their deposed adversaries beating Hitachi 2-1 but never likely to reach the required six-goal margin. Kamamoto retired in 1984, after seven years as player-manager, with a career tally of 202 league goals.

Verdy Kawasaki and Yokohama Marinos — J. League, 1995

While Yanmar enjoyed their celebrations, the second division champions in 1974 were plotting long-term domination. Yomiuri Soccer Club were established following Japan's bronze medal in Mexico City and soon set their intentions on becoming idols for the entire country, mirroring the parent media conglomerate's baseball team, the 21-time Japan Series champions Yomiuri Giants. Brazilian players and coaches were recruited as the JFA relaxed its amateurism policy in the mid-1980s. Popular Japanese internationals like Tsuyoshi Kitazawa and Kazuyoshi Miura joined the naturalised Ruy Ramos as the club prepared for its professional rebirth as Verdy Kawasaki. This was the big business policy which, they said, would transcend the change in eras. Yomiuri claimed the final two JSL titles (1990-91, 1991-92); Verdy the first two J. League championships (1993, 1994).

Yomiuri's biggest rivals had been Nissan, who were also quick to embrace the advent of professionalism (even in the late 1980s, both companies were spending a billion yen per year on football). The automotive marque won consecutive trebles in 1988-89 and 1989-90, but their J. League incarnation as Yokohama Marinos initially struggled to meet expectations. Despite 51 goals in two seasons from the River Plate legend Ramón Díaz, Hidehiko Shimizu's side had failed to challenge even for a single stage title.

But things stepped up a gear with the arrival of two South American managers — the Brazilian Nelsinho Baptista at Kawasaki and the Argentinian Jorge Raúl Solari for Yokohama — in 1995. On the season's first Wednesday, Marinos thumped Verdy 6-2 to record the second of six wins in their opening seven games. The champions hadn't suffered consecutive defeats in exactly a year, but the shock saw them lose half a dozen on the spin. Solari's methods weren't entirely popular — Díaz and the talismanic goalkeeper Shigetatsu Matsunaga both quit after the latter was dropped for a young Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi — but when Marinos prevailed 3-2 in the return match on 6 May, Verdy fell to 12th (of 14), fully 20 points behind their adversaries.

The tension in the Yokohama dressing room, however, reached breaking point. Solari resigned and went to Rosario Central midway through a run of five losses in seven, with Hiroshi Hayano promoted from within the club to restore order. Nelsinho, meanwhile, suddenly found his feet at Verdy, and they won every one of their remaining 12 games. Losing on the last Wednesday left a nervy Marinos still needing a point — as of that season, earnable through penalty shootout defeat — at home to Kashima finally to seal the first-stage crown. They held on, just, to win 1-0 through a goal from the Argentina forward Ramón Bello.

Predictably, though, Verdy continued to ride the wave — dropping just 10 points in 23 matches to cruise to the second-stage title with three rounds to spare. An epic season — still the J. League's longest ever — seemed likely to end in familiar fashion at the championship playoff. Only, it didn't. Hayano had enjoyed four months focusing solely on the two-legged tie in Tokyo and his fresher-looking Marinos took both legs 1-0 with goals from David Bisconti and Masami Ihara. A desperate Verdy mounted a furious late charge, but there were no penalties to save them this time. The old suspicion that Yomiuri always got their way had finally been smashed.

Yokohama Flügels Emperor's Cup, 1998

Learning from the mistakes of the North American Soccer League, the J. League's planners had, from the outset, written into statute that member clubs must actively foster links with their nominated hometowns. But corporate investment remained a necessary evil; the new teams were, after all, essentially offshoots of the JSL's old company sides, and it was vital to create a whole new ball game that could immediately attract the ‘customers'. The fickle nature of consumer economies dictated that, while Japan's asset price bubble had afforded businesses much extravagance when the monies were committed in 1990, it had long since burst by the time the league actually kicked off two years later.

Attendances, too, dropped off after an initial three-year boom. With no stage titles since 1995 and reduced support from Yomiuri, Verdy alienated the Kawasaki public by agitating for a permanent move to the capital — a wish that was reluctantly granted in 2001. Three years earlier, however, the board at Yokohama Flügels had gone a step further. With the co-owners Sato Kogyo, a construction company, unable to keep up their investment, news leaked on 28 October that the airline ANA had negotiated in secret for their club to be merged with — or effectively absorbed into — their neighbours Yokohama Marinos.

The footballing personnel — including César Sampaio, Paulo Futre and the future Japan stalwarts Seigo Narazaki and Yasuhito Endo — received cursory confirmation the following morning. With the remainder of the league campaign coloured by angry protests from fans and players alike, Flügels promptly thrashed Cerezo Osaka 7-0 and won their last four games to rise from 13th to seventh in the final second-stage standings. But despite hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition that begged the owners to explore any alternative, an unsympathetic ANA again went covert to sign an official agreement with Nissan ahead of the season-ending Emperor's Cup. The squad jaded by their shareholders' insincerity, it was mooted that the German coach Gert Engels should use the tournament to put lesser-known names in the shop window.

Selfless reserves like Takashi Sakurai, however, publicly rejected this opportunity and called upon the team to unite for a genuine final hurrah. Defeat in the historic Emperor's Cup, first contested back in 1921, usually spelled the end of the season; now, it would signify the end for Flügels altogether. Ties against Otsuka Pharmaceutical and Ventforet Kofu from the feeder Japan Football League were tentatively overcome, but underdog status relieved the pressure for a quarter-final with the J. League champions Júbilo Iwata. Yokohama's poorer relation prevailed 2-1 thanks to Takayuki Yoshida's late header, before a sole Hideki Nagai strike secured victory over the league runners-up Kashima Antlers in the last four.

The Flügels players had at least succeeded in prolonging their collective identity as far as the showpiece final on New Year's Day 1999, where they faced Shimizu S-Pulse — a club saved from financial meltdown by a supporters' campaign 12 months earlier. Masaaki Sawanobori incurred the wrath of neutrals nationwide by rudely opening the scoring for S-Pulse with a clever diving header, but the heroics of Narazaki in goal and an equaliser right on half-time by Yoshikiyo Kuboyama opened the door for romance and emotion to take over. Yoshida collected the ball from Nagai to fire home the winner on 72 minutes. The team that no longer existed walked away with the trophy.

Yokohama F Marinos, Júbilo Iwata and Kashima Antlers — J. League second stage, 2003

The J. League's opening decade was ultimately dominated by a trio of clubs that had best understood the various long-term ideals and implications of the new, professional competition. Kashima Antlers immediately forged a lasting identity with their hometown by hosting a succession of community-orientated events and soccer schools. At Júbilo Iwata, respected overseas names like Dunga, Gerald Vanenberg and Salvatore Schillaci were recruited not only for their playing contributions, but also as mentors for a talented generation of home-grown players who could then take on the mantle. And despite the clumsy new infix that served as a permanent reminder of their neighbours' demise, Yokohama F Marinos had found the right balance between business and pleasure to retain the successful status they had enjoyed since their Nissan days.

Although all three teams were approaching the end of a cycle by 2003, it was fitting that they should each be involved in the most thrilling climax to any season in the twin-stage era. With two rounds remaining in late November, 10 of the 16 J1 members (a second tier, J2, was formed in 1999) still had a mathematical chance of the title. Second-placed Urawa Reds immediately surrendered theirs in a 4-1 thrashing at Nagoya Grampus Eight, allowing Júbilo, who completed a late comeback against Gamba Osaka, to go two points clear of Kashima, last-minute winners over Kashiwa Reysol. However, the final day sent the Iwata side to Yokohama — one point further back in third but with the best goal difference of the contenders after a 4-0 drubbing of soon-to-be-relegated Vegalta Sendai.

The first-stage champions Marinos had little to lose but nevertheless conspired to kick off in suicidal fashion, falling a goal and then a man down inside a quarter of an hour: Tetsuya Enomoto, confusingly deputising for the injured Tatsuya Enomoto (no relation) in goal, reacted with uncharacteristic fury to a foul by the Júbilo goalscorer Rodrigo Gral and was sent off for an overzealous, retaliatory shove. Although Marquinhos bundled home an equaliser early in the second half, the visitors remained content to sit on their advantage in the standings. Even a draw against the 10 men was enough as long as Kashima didn't win by four, and their 2-0 interval lead in Urawa was halved on 76 minutes by Yuichiro Nagai.

But Yokohama weren't finished. Roared on into stoppage time by a crowd of 43,283 at the 2002 World Cup final stadium, Tatsuhiko Kubo raced onto a speculative flick from Naoki Matsuda (who sadly died this year, aged 34) and rose highest to head the bouncing ball beyond the goalkeeper Hiromasa Yamamoto — stranded on his six-yard line by a calamitously hesitant defence. Tears barely disguised by the pouring rain, the Júbilo players could only stare at the big screen to witness Kashima crowned as champions.

Almost incomprehensibly, they were instead met with stunned expressions that mirrored their own. On the stroke of full-time in Yokohama, 30 miles up the road, a diving header by the J.League MVP Emerson gave the Reds an even later, even more dramatic equaliser. For 103 agonising seconds, the former and future Japan boss Takeshi Okada had to wait for another final whistle. Its sound confirmed his Marinos as unlikely winners of both stages and, consequently, the overall championship.

Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka – J. League, 2005

Following the earlier abolition of penalty shoot-outs and extra time, the last of the J. League's original gimmicks was done away in 2005 as the two-stage format was replaced by a European-style, more purist single league campaign. The new set-up attracted plenty of criticism, however — previously unsuccessful clubs such as Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka and JEF United Chiba had emerged to battle for honours in the final two half-seasons, but even fans doubted their ability to maintain top form over the whole nine months. Such fears appeared well founded as Kashima Antlers, resurgent under Zico's old mate Toninho Cerezo, won nine of their opening eleven games to open up an intimidating ten-point lead.

Inexplicably, their early momentum was washed away over the rainy season break in June. Kashima failed to record consecutive wins again all season, picking up maximum points in just seven of their remaining twenty-three matches. Gamba, meanwhile, were inspired; a swashbuckling approach based around the goal-a-game potency of the one-time Brazil striker Araújo delivered 34 points from the next 39. With highlights along the way including a 7-1 mauling of Ossie Ardiles's relegation-bound Tokyo Verdy and a 4-1 romp over their unfashionable neighbours Cerezo Osaka, the neroblu usurped the long-time leaders in early September. No side from the baseball-crazy Kansai region had won any trophy after 1992, but after several false dawns, its sole J. League founder member was at last looking the real deal.

Gamba cruised to another 4-1 win over another local rival, Vissel Kobe, to move five points clear with seven to play. But just like the still-stalling Antlers, Akira Nishino's men suddenly lost their nerve. Outplayed at home by third-from-bottom Oita Trinita on 22 October, their 2-1 reverse was the first of five single-goal defeats in the next half dozen. Confidence took a further battering as the League Cup final went to JEF United on penalties. When Gamba lost to the same opponents again on the penultimate weekend, they were embarrassingly overhauled by the unlikeliest of adversaries. Unbeaten in four months since that derby lesson, Cerezo had quietly come along the rails to rise from 12th to top, with 58 points. Gamba were second on 57, with three other contenders — Urawa, Kashima, and Chiba — on 56.

Away to sixth-placed Kawasaki Frontale while Cerezo hosted FC Tokyo, a beleaguered Gamba faced the tougher final-day fixture, but with both Osaka clubs level at the interval, Urawa led the provisional table on goal difference ahead of Kashima. Despite a missed penalty from Zé Carlos, pink-shirted Cerezo took a 2-1 advantage early in the second period through the former Bolton Wanderers forward Akinori Nishizawa and when Yasuhito Endo gave Gamba their third lead of the afternoon from the spot on 80 minutes, it became a purely local battle again.

Placed under commendable siege by a Tokyo side with little other than pride and integrity to play for, the unexpected leaders finally cracked in the last minute. Footage of Yasuyuki Konno's scrambled leveller soon reached Kawasaki, where — as Araújo made it 4-2 deep into stoppage time — there were already people on the pitch. With a preposterous record of 82 goals scored and 58 conceded from 34 games, Gamba were Osaka's first ever champions, while Cerezo (48-40) sank to fifth.

Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers – J. League, 2007

The Fifa Club World Cup may have struggled to capture the imagination in Europe but its effect on Japanese and Asian club football was immediate and profound. For years, J. League sides had treated the Asian Champions League (ACL) with barely-disguised disdain, routinely succumbing in front of sparse crowds to teams from China or Thailand. But when ‘their' beloved Toyota Cup was expanded from the old one-off event in Tokyo to include sides from every continent in 2005, Japanese fans and players could finally dream of competitive fixtures against the most glamorous European and South American opposition. That meant giving the ACL a proper crack and, as it expanded, fiercer competition over minor placings in the domestic league.

Double winners in 2006, Urawa Reds finally had a team to match their fanatical support — they had long since outstripped Verdy as the most popular team in Japan — and would be the first to embark upon a genuine challenge on all fronts. Despite trailing a typically goal-crazy Gamba while the ACL group stages were tentatively negotiated, Holger Osieck's side prevailed 1-0 in Osaka in mid-August to seize the domestic initiative and launch a run of nine victories in 10 league games. International-class talent like Shinji Ono, Yuki Abe and Makoto Hasebe gave Urawa the spine to overcome the South Korean champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma on penalties in their continental semi-final, while opening up a six-point lead over Gamba at the head of J1 with five rounds to play. Four points further adrift in third were Kashima Antlers, for whom the mid-season return of the talismanic midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara from Messina had sparked an upturn in form.

The ACL final was another two-legged affair, this time necessitating a midweek round trip of almost 10,000 miles to face Sepahan of Iran. Urawa emerged with a 1-1 draw, and a 2-0 win on home soil a week later saw them crowned champions of Asia. Such gruelling exertions clearly took their toll, though, as the three league matches either side of the final were all drawn. A wasteful Gamba could only close the gap by one, but Kashima extended their streak of wins to seven — slashing a ten-point deficit to just four in the process — ahead of a crunch fixture at Urawa's Saitama Stadium on the penultimate weekend. 62,123 people turned up to see if the hosts could just squeeze out another draw; a sole, angled strike from the Antlers forward Takuya Nozawa denied them a second trophy celebration in ten days.

Still, most believed their coronation had merely been delayed. The Reds' final opponents were Yokohama FC, a phoenix club run by disenfranchised former Flügels supporters that had risen up from the third tier only to be relegated with just three wins and 13 points from 33 matches. Tens of thousands of supporters made the short journey south to turn the International Stadium into a sea of red. Even when the 40-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura played in Shingo Nejime to give Yokohama a shock lead on 17 minutes, no-one truly expected it to last. But a lacklustre Urawa once again drew a blank — 20 goal attempts betraying a distinct air of desperation and exhaustion as the shots flew ever further from their target. Kashima cruised to a 3-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse that confirmed them, from nowhere, as J. League kings for the fifth time.

The shell-shocked Asian champions could, at least, look forward to the consolation of a Club World Cup date with AC Milan. They lost 1-0, but gained a lot of credit for a spirited display. 

Kashima Antlers, Nagoya Grampus et al — J. League, 2008

With Japanese professional football emerging from its rapid growth period into a new stage in which it challenged on a continental level, many observers felt that Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka would build upon their successes in the mid-2000s to pull away from the rest as the new big three. That idea proved unfounded, and the 2008 J1 season approached its final three weekends with the top six separated by just five points. Gamba weren't even among them — busy eliminating their fierce rivals Urawa in the last four of the ACL en route to continental glory and a devil-may-care 5-3 defeat to Manchester United. The Reds were still second at that point, but had again run out of steam and lost five of their last seven to wind up seventh.

Instead there were title challenges from the likes of FC Tokyo, top dogs in the capital as Verdy prepared for a second relegation in four seasons, and Kawasaki Frontale, who had quickly won the hearts of a town abandoned by Verdy with the goalscoring prowess of forwards like Juninho and Jong Tae-Se. Oita Trinita, from the island of Kyushu, earned their first silverware with League Cup glory in November and sat in fourth despite scoring just 31 goals in as many league games. And, most excitingly for the wider public, the perennial underachievers Nagoya Grampus had lost the ‘Eight' from their name but regained Dragan Stojković — a player at the club from 1994 to 2001 who returned as manager with a vision finally to capture the league championship [see interview in The Blizzard, Issue Two].

But Kashima demonstrated their greater experience on the third-last Sunday in eking out a 1-0 win over Oita, who had gone top of the table with eight to play but only taken four points thereafter. They moved two clear of Nagoya, whose autumn had gone scarcely better. The following weekend would be decisive — with Stojković's men hosting Consadole Sapporo, as hapless as Yokohama FC had been 12 months previously, Antlers knew victory over Júbilo Iwata was essential if they were to maintain their advantage. The fallen giants, however, were locked in a relegation scrap and, having discovered some serious defensive muscle under the emergency stewardship of the former Japan coach Hans Ooft, valiantly kept the score at 0-0 for 94 minutes. In the 95th, Chikashi Masuda put in one last free-kick for the centre-back Daiki Iwamasa to leap above the Iwata defence and turn the Kashima Stadium into a deafening storm of red and blue ecstasy.

There was no repeat of Urawa's final day surrender, as Kashima held onto another 1-0 lead in Sapporo to complete their successful title defence. Even a point would have left Grampus requiring a 12-goal win in Oita; they drew, allowing Kawasaki to snatch second but securing an ACL spot in Stojković's first season. The Serbian would come good on his championship promise two years later. Fourth and sixth in 2008, meanwhile, Trinita and FC Tokyo were relegated with essentially unchanged squads in — respectively — 2009 and 2010.