For my column in this week’s Weekly Soccer Magazine I considered the fact that J1 will be without a representative from the capital next season, while another city, Osaka, is further establishing itself as the home of Japanese football.
FC Tokyo’s relegation made official what we have known for a while: the economic, political and cultural capital is most certainly not the first city of Japanese football.
And a quick glance at the J.League teams appearing in next season’s Asian Champions League means it is not particularly difficult to see where the power really lies.
As Kiyoshi Okuma’s side gear up for the Tokyo derbies next season – when they face Verdy in J2 – Osaka’s two teams, Gamba and Cerezo, will be leading the charge into the ACL.
Nagoya Grampus won their first ever J.League title this season, Montedio Yamagata did fantastically to further establish themselves in the top-flight and, at the bottom of the table, Vissel Kobe seized upon Tokyo’s feeble end to the season and put together a seven-game unbeaten run to remarkably stay in J1.
While the achievements of these sides are impressive though, my team of the year would have to be Cerezo.
The club, like Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2009, will make their debut in the ACL next season just over a year after they were playing second division football.
Since achieving promotion from J2, the team’s positive and attacking style has been a joy to watch, and, while many were fearful for the side’s chances in the top-flight after the departure of Shinji Kagawa, some of the combination play of Akihiro Ienaga, Takashi Inui and Adriano in the final third has been spectacular.
I saw the team play twice in the middle of their seven-game unbeaten run earlier in the season, first away to Jubilo and then at home FC Tokyo, and the energy and enthusiasm on display was fantastic.
When I played football back in England players would often shout “It’s still 0-0!” when my team scored first (not something that happened very often), in order to ensure that we all stayed focused. During Cerezo games somebody must have been doing likewise, and it looked like the team thought they absolutely must score every time they were in possession.
The speed at which they moved the ball from front to back and created chance after chance gave the impression of a team very much enjoying their football.
As well as causing their opponents many problems when on the offence, Levir Culpi’s side were not the easiest to break down either. Their duo of Brazilian midfield anchors, Amaral and Martinez, provided the perfect platform from which to build and a defence marshalled superbly by Teruyuki Moniwa saw the side finish with the second best goals against record and the best goal difference in the division.
While the demands on the team’s relatively slim squad meant they were unable to provide a real challenge for the title, they excelled when the pressure was really on at the end of the season, winning five of their last six games – including the last four, during which they scored 14 times.
Cerezo justifiably took a lot of the headlines this season, but the perception of the black and blue half of the city continues to puzzle me.
Gamba have finished outside of the top three just once in the last seven years, have one of the league’s finest managers and this season provided the J.League Young Player of the Year in Takashi Usami.
The club receives very little recognition for all its success though, and this year just one Gamba player made it into the J.League Best Eleven – Yasuhito Endo, who was appearing for a record-breaking eighth consecutive time.
Endo’s relaxed attitude perhaps sums up the understated coverage his team receives. When I asked him why he thought he was always in the team of the year he smiled and replied, “I don’t know,” before adding that, “I want to be in (the Best Eleven) however many times I can – until I retire. I’m not satisfied to be second (in the league) and, of course, I have a strong desire to win.”
This focus on the future rather than reflecting on past achievements – which Cerezo also epitomised by insisting on pushing on after their promotion – perhaps gives the clearest insight of all as to why it is now Osaka’s clubs that are at the forefront of the Japanese game.