Sanfrecce Update: Sanfrecce set to join Asia’s elite
KASHIWAGI Yosuke: seen here scoring against Montedio Yamagata in May, Kashiwagi has turned traitor and joined Urawa Red Diamonds.
Itsukaichi JET Stephen Packer fills us in on the latest news on our hometown soccer team, Sanfrecce. For running updates, visit Stephen’s blog, ¡Sanfrecce Olé!
Story and Photos by Stephen Packer
The Japanese football season finally concluded on New Year’s Day, and with it Sanfrecce Hiroshima were confirmed as Japan’s fourth entrant in the 2010 Asian Champions League. This season represents a remarkable turnaround for the Purple Archers, after they gained promotion to J1 by winning the J2 championship in 2008. Sanfrecce’s fourth-placed finish represents their best league performance for fifteen years, and comes after winning the 2008 Super Cup.
The J. League season finished on Dec. 12, with Sanfrecce five points shy of the third place they needed to qualify for the ACL automatically. However, after Gamba Osaka ran out 4-1 winners over Nagoya Grampus in the Emperor’s Cup final, Sanfrecce’s place among Asia’s élite club teams was confirmed: the fourth ACL place is awarded to the winner of the Emperor’s Cup, but since Gamba had already qualified by virtue of their third-place J. League finish, the final berth was awarded to Hiroshima. This will be Sanfrecce’s first appearance in the Asian Champions League, and their first appearance in Asian club competition for 41 years.
There have also been a couple of important transfers, with a key midfielder departing, but a new goalkeeper coming in. KASHIWAGI Yosuke, widely regarded as one of the top young prospects in the J. League, made a shock move to the despised Urawa Red Diamonds, officially announced on his birthday in December. Kashiwagi joined Sanfrecce Youth in 2003 and spent six years at the club, scoring 23 goals in 137 appearances in all competitions. His apparent commitment to the club stretched to having a special T-shirt commissioned earlier this season, with “We ♥ 広島” on the front and “KASHIWAGI 10” on the back, which I bought myself in the summer. There were hints before the final match against Kyoto however, that perhaps Kashiwagi had fallen out of love with his fellow Purple Archers, after captain SATO Hisato tearfully told the cameras after the game that it was “the last time this group of players will be together.” This confirmed the worst-kept secret in Japanese football, and came after Hisato had taken off his captain’s armband after his second goal to reveal a number 10 drawn on the reverse, and the camera shifted to a bemused and embarrassed-looking Kashiwagi.
The irony is that Urawa, frequently described in the press (both foreign as well as Japanese) as the “biggest club in Japan”, have been brought back to earth with a bump this season. Urawa finished sixth in the J. League, the result of a seven-match losing streak (during which Sanfrecce twisted the knife by handing them the sixth defeat of that run), and they will be casting envious glances towards Chugoku as the Purple Archers rub shoulders with the cream of Asian football.
Urawa suffered a further kick in the teeth this season when Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Urawa’s star Japan national team defender, completed a switch to Nagoya Grampus exactly a week after the Kashiwagi transfer was announced. Tulio had fallen out with Urawa management after criticising the sale of fellow Brazilian-born wing-back, also to Nagoya. The final straw came when Tulio confronted Urawa fans (frequently referred to as “moo cows” for their incessant booing at games) who were jeering their own players. Urawa’s supporters will have to console themselves with the statistic of having the highest average attendance for home games in the J. League, while their overpaid players will probably once more be bending the ear of any journalist who will listen about the “pathetic” salaries on offer from the club.
Also departing Sanfrecce is striker KUBO Tatsuhiko, who has been released from his contract. Kubo (nicknamed the Dragon) began his career with Sanfrecce in 1995, and by the time he left for the Yokohama F. Marinos in 2002, he had accumulated 230 caps and 82 goals for Hiroshima in all competitions. He was also capped for the Japanese national team while with Sanfrecce, was eventually capped 32 times for his country with 11 goals, and was declared Japanese footballer of the year in 2003 while with the F. Marinos. Kubo returned in 2008 after Sanfrecce had made the drop to J2, making a further 27 appearances in all competitions and scoring 4 goals in that season. Back in J1 though, Kubo only made two appearances all season, both I suspect as a substitute to give captain SATO Hisato a rest. Kubo fell further down the pecking order after LEE Tadanari (108 league appearances, 24 goals for Kashiwa Reysol) transferred in August. High school sannensei OSAKI Junya, who has now been signed on a professional contract, also scored in the 5-1 Nabisco Cup win over Albirex Niigata.
There had been a rumour that Kubo will join J2 new boys Giravanz Kitakyushu (formally NewWave Kitakyushu), but the move was not officially announced by Sanfrecce. Kitakyushu finished fourth in the Japan Football League, and are the only team to have been promoted from the JFL (J3 equivalent) for next year. Giravanz were forced to change their name from NewWave before the start of the 2010 season, due to a trademark conflict. “Giravanz” was apparently chosen as a conflation of the Italian words girasole, meaning “sunflower”, and avanzare, meaning “moving forward”. However, an Italian friend of mine has informed me that since girare means “to spin” and avanzare also means “to leave over”, an alternative interpretation of avanzare would be “spinning leftovers”. In any event, I wish SpinningLeftovers Kitakyushu the best of luck in J2 next season. In the end, it was announced on January 6 that Kubo would join Zweigen Kanazawa, who will play in the JFL (J3) next season after winning the promotion/relegation playoff against FC Kariya.
As for the other departures, midfielder RAKUYAMA Takashi has also been released. Rakuyama joined Sanfrecce on loan in 2008 from JEF United Chiba, where he was used sparingly. The move was made permanent in 2009, and Rakuyama made 17 appearances in all competitions this season, mainly as a replacement for tired players. Young OKAMOTO Tomotaka was increasingly favoured as the season reached its end however, and the progress of the 19-year old Onomichi native has rendered Rakuyama surplus to requirements.
Rounding out the outgoing players, North Korean international (7 caps 1 goal) RI Han-Jae, who attended Hiroshima Korean High School, has transferred to J2’s Consadole Sapporo after spending eight years with Sanfrecce. Ri made regular appearances for Sanfrecce in J2 last year, appearing in 37 of 42 league games. He has been visibly surplus to demands this year however, with the arrival of Croatian winger Mihael MIKIC, and was unable to distinguish himself this season. NISHIKAWA Shogo, who had the number 3 shirt despite playing 26 times for Sanfrecce in five years, has transferred to J1’s Montedio Yamagata. Nishikawa has spent the last three years out on loan, first at Tokushima Vortis and then at Montedio. Defender HASHIUCHI Yuya and forward HIRASHIGE Ryuichi are also being loaned to J2’s Tokushima Vortis. Both are young players (22 and 21 years old respectively) who will have limited opportunities in J1 with Sanfrecce next season, but who should benefit from the experience in a lower league. Hirashige came to prominence in his third appearance in 2007, as he scored against Kyoto Sanga in the promotion/relegation playoff, which Sanfrecce lost and were relegated to J2. Hashiuchi spent the end of this season on loan at the JFL’s Gainare Tottori, where he scored an impressive 4 goals in 10 appearances as a central defender, but Gainare disappointingly failed to reach the fourth place they needed for promotion to J2.
Gamba’s YAMAZAKI Masato, seen here at the Big Arch in October, is joining on loan. (Photo by Stephen Packer)
Somewhat softening the blow of Kashiwagi’s departure, is the arrival of Japanese international goalkeeper NISHIKAWA Shusaku from Oita Trinita. An Oita prefecture native, 23-year old Nishikawa joins Sanfrecce after Oita’s overspending has left them in a ¥1.1 billion black hole. The J. League has decided to lend ¥350 million to Oita, but they have demanded that Trinita in turn offload their best assets and concentrate on rebuilding with a reduced budget in J2. Oita’s loss is Hiroshima’s gain, as Nishikawa has experience at junior international level, as well as one full cap for the senior international side (at the 6-0 win over Hong Kong in October 2009, in a qualifying match for the 2011 Asian Cup). As I have pointed out in the past, Sanfrecce have dropped points this year due to poor goalkeeping, and we should expect the defence to improve considerably with Nishikawa’s arrival.
Also arriving on loan are Gamba Osaka’s YAMAZAKI Masato, and Kawasaki Frontale’s YAMAGISHI Satoru. Yamazaki is a forward who appeared once for Gamba in the J. League, and scored a goal for them in the Asian Champions League. His most important contribution however, was the two goals he scored for Gamba in their 2-1 win over Kashima Antlers, in the quarter-finals of the Emperor’s Cup. It will be interesting to see if Tadanari Lee improves his game as his place is put under pressure by the loanee. Yamagishi is a versatile midfielder who has 11 caps for Japan, but who has not played for the national team since March 2008. I expect him to compete with HATTORI Kota on the wing, if not as a replacement for Kashiwagi in attacking midfield. The last arrival is ISHIKAWA Hironori, a defender who is joining from Ryutsu Keizai University.
END OF THE 2009 SEASON
My previous Sanfrecce Update ended on a positive note, as Sanfrecce claimed three points in the league with their first victory for two months. Two wins and a draw in their final three matches since saw them make a late surge from seventh place to fourth, and more importantly, into the 2010 Asian Champions League.
Two Sanfrecce players have also played for the Japanese national team since the previous update: Captain and striker SATO Hisato scored after 75 minutes away in Hong Kong on Nov. 18, and defender MAKINO Tomoaki earned his first full cap (and a yellow card, bless him) in the 3-2 defeat of Yemen on Jan. 6. The victory in the Ali Mohsen Al-Muraisi Stadium, as well as the 4-0 win in Hong Kong, mean that Japan have qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar with a game to spare.
Sanfrecce’s chances of qualifying automatically for the ACL (third place or higher) were dashed in their game against Nagoya Grampus, as they drew 0-0 in a repeat of the result from April. The match was most notable for the return of MORISAKI Koji, who had spent the entire 2009 season up to then on the sidelines. The cause was apparently burn-out from the stresses of Sanfrecce’s 2008 promotion campaign. After the match, manager Mihael PETROVIC commented that the past two seasons have been the best of his professional career. Musing on the philosophy of the club, Petrović stated that the club will not attempt to qualify for the ACL “by buying five or six players”, but “by developing young players”. Sanfrecce’s subsequent qualification for the ACL can only have affirmed this philosophy.
Sanfrecce’s penultimate game was against Jubilo Iwata. Two losses to Jubilo earlier in the season confirmed their status as Sanfrecce’s bogey team, but the Purple Archers hung onto an early 1-0 lead until the end. SATO Hisato was the scorer, after he had been played through by the now-departed Kashiwagi. Fortunately, Sanfrecce were able to contain Jubilo’s MAEDA Ryuichi, who won the J. League top scorer award with 20 goals for the season.
The final game of the season was against Kyoto Sanga on Dec. 5, and as previously mentioned, the biggest talking point was the rumoured transfer of Kashiwagi to Urawa. Sanfrecce cruised home with an easy 4-1 victory, though as the teams below them all drew or lost, a draw would have been enough to secure fourth place. SATO Hisato scored twice to bring his tally to 15, making him the joint fourth top-scorer in the J. League. Defender MAKINO Tomoaki also grabbed another, bringing him to eight for the season, as many as Vissel Kobe’s national team striker OKUBO Yoshito (so you can understand why I’m quite keen on him). The remaining goal was scored by backup defender MORITA Kohei, as he headed in unmarked from a corner with the Kyoto defence in shambles.
Frontale’s YAMAGISHI Satoru, seen here in April, is also joining on loan.
2010 ASIAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Sanfrecce had a nervous wait to see if they had done enough to qualify for Asia, as their hopes rested on an already-qualified team’s lifting the trophy. All three of those sides went into the quarter-finals, but since Kashima Antlers (the J. League champions) and Gamba Osaka (third place) had been drawn against each other, it was only going to be possible for two teams to progress to the semi-finals. In the event, only Gamba Osaka went though, after Kawasaki Frontale (second place) lost their match.
Sanfrecce fans had their fingers crossed on New Years Day then, as only a victory by Gamba in the final would see them into Asia. Their opponents were Nagoya Grampus, who finished ninth in the J. League, but who managed to get into the semi-finals of this year’s ACL after finishing third last year. Gamba ran out 4-1 winners, with two goals from ACL Player of the Year ENDO Yasuhito, but I understand that the game was closer than the scoreline suggests.
Gamba’s triumph, their second straight Emperor’s Cup victory, means Sanfrecce will compete in the Asian club competition for the first time since 1969. In that competition, then known as the Asian Club Championship, the Toyo Kogyo company team (otherwise known as Mazda, Sanfrecce’s forerunner team) came third behind the now defunct Yangzee FC and the winners Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The first games of the 2010 Asian Champions League will be played on Feb. 23 and 24, a week and a half before the new J. League season kicks off. Sanfrecce have been drawn in Group H, with Adelaide United of Australia, Shandong Luneng of China, and Pohang Steelers of South Korea. Pohang are the current ACL champions after beating Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad in the final, and they also finished third in the recent 2009 FIFA Club World Cup.
THE J. LEAGUE AT LARGE
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
As I predicted in the previous Sanfrecce Update, Kawasaki Frontale’s 7-0 whitewashing of Sanfrecce back in October was indeed not the blooming of a serious challenge for silverware, but rather the last creative gasp of a team destined to fall just short of the mark for the second season in a row. Their subsequent loss in the Nabisco Cup final presaged a crucial 1-0 loss away to then bottom team Oita Trinita, and in the end this came back to haunt them as Kashima Antlers won the J. League by two points. A consolation victory in the Emperor’s Cup was also denied them, as they lost to J2’s Vegalta Sendai in extra time.
As for champions Kashima, a five-game losing streak was reversed into a five-match winning one, as they overtook Kawasaki to claim their third J. League title in a row. They claimed the league crown in hostile territory, as they beat Urawa 1-0 in Saitama on the final day of the season. Third-placed team Gamba Osaka also successfully defended their Emperor’s Cup title, and they will be looking to regain the ACL championship next season after winning it in 2008.
At the other end of the table, JEF United were unable to arrest their decline into J2, and they eventually finished bottom of the table. Their Scottish manager Alex Miller was sacked by the club in July with the club a point from safety, but with him gone the club sank to 13 points from survival by the end of the season. One of the six clubs who have played in J1 since its first season in 1993, next season will see that number reduced to five as JEF ply their trade in J2. The remaining teams who will have played in J1 for 17 years straight are Kashima Antlers (1st in 2009), Gamba Osaka (3rd), Shimizu S-Pulse (7th), Nagoya Grampus (9th), and Yokohama F. Marinos (10th). Sanfrecce are a founding member of the J. League, but have played for two seasons in J2, both times returning to the top flight for the next season.
Oita Trinita’s injury-ravaged squad recovered slightly from their disastrous 14-game straight losing streak earlier in the season, but the damage had already been done. Their 10-game unbeaten streak at the end of the year, while good enough to win the league outright by two points if it had been maintained for the whole season, was only enough to pick them up off the bottom. As previously mentioned, Trinita overspent massively this year after finishing fourth last year, and their financial problems and restructuring mean that they are not aiming to return to J1 for at least four years. Expect this episode to be a lesson to Hiroshima, as well as the rest of the J. League.
Kashiwa Reysol are the final team to have fallen through the J1 trapdoor, to the surprise of few. Reysol looked a poor side as Sanfrecce easily beat them 4-1 at the Big Arch in April, and they have stayed in the relegation zone almost all season. Kashiwa needed to overturn a seven-point deficit going into the final rounds, and succeeded only in cutting it to six by the end of the season.
The good news for J2 sides, and the J. League as a whole, is that both promoted sides survived in J1 this year. Sanfrecce’s success this season has been discussed, but Montedio Yamagata have defied expectations to finish in 15th place, five points clear of Kashiwa Reysol. The three relegated sides’ replacements for the next season are Vegalta Sendai, Cerezo Osaka and Shonan Bellmare. All three sides have previous experience in J1, and will look to draw on it as they attempt to emulate Hiroshima and Yamagata and survive the 2010 season.
Vegalta have played only two seasons in J1 since the creation of the J. League, but they had to wait until this year to win promotion back to the top flight, after they lost to Jubilo Iwata in the 2008 Promotion/Relegation Series. One reason for Vegalta’s misfortune was the performance of Sanfrecce that year, as they won J2 with a massive 22 points in hand. This year however, Sendai’s faithful fans were rewarded as their side took the J2 crown by two points over Cerezo Osaka, and also made it to the semi-finals of the Emperor’s Cup, where they lost to the eventual winners Gamba Osaka. With Emperor’s Cup victories over Kawasaki Frontale (2nd, J1) and FC Tokyo (5th, J1), Vegalta have a very good chance of elbowing their way into J1’s midtable next year, and possibly beyond.
Cerezo Osaka finished second in J2, when a victory in their final match against Sagan Tosu would have seen them finish top. Their 100 goals, the most in J2, was one better than Sanfrecce’s 2008 total of 99. However, Sanfrecce scored those goals in nine fewer matches (42 versus 51 in an expanded J2). Fully 47 of these goals were scored by two players: KAGAWA Shinji, who took J2’s golden boot with 27 goals, and INUI Takashi, who scored 20 goals. Both players have international experience (10 caps 2 goals, 1 cap 0 goals respectively) and Inui has a high school championship to his name from when he won in 2006 with Yasu HS (Shiga). Kagawa also attracted interest from Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, but will apparently stay with Cerezo for at least another year after re-signing last week. Expect to hear more from Kagawa next season though, especially since the 20-year old has already expressed a desire to play in the European Champions League.
The final promoted team is Shonan Bellmare, who have not played in J1 since being relegated at the end of the 1999 season (incidentally, this was the first season it was possible to be relegated, since J2 was only created at the end of the previous season. It is also the season chronicled by Jonathan BIRCHALL in his book, Ultra Nippon). Shonan squeaked into the last promotion place by a single point over Ventforet Kofu, after a mid-season wobble almost left them stranded in J2 for another year. Their backline is lead by the goalscoring and determined Brazilian defender Jean. His two national team caps from 1999, and previous J1 experience with FC Tokyo make him a valuable player, but at 32 years he is not getting any younger.
In short, either Vegalta or Cerezo could surprise the J. League as Sanfrecce did this year. It is difficult to see Shonan making waves however, and it will be interesting to see if all three sides can survive to see the 2011 J1 season. No teams were relegated from J2 this year, as the J. League is expanding.
I will be posting a preview of the new season, prior to the beginning of the Asian Champions League in late February. Until then, a happy new year to everybody.
J. LEAGUE TABLES
(click to enlarge)