Friday, 25 September 2020

 


Kashima Antlers have established themselves as the most successful team in J.League history, racking up league titles and cup trophies in their well-stocked trophy cabinet. The team has experienced three periods of success: the first began just before the J.League was launched and culminated in their league title, in 1996. The second period of dominance peaked during the 2000 season, when Kashima won an unprecedented treble (the league championship, the Nabisco Cup and the Emperor's Cup). The third "golden era" was perhaps the most impressive, as the team won the league three times in a row, from 2007 to 2009. The most recent phase of success has seen them raise another league title in 2017, and an Asia Champions League crown in 2018. Yet no one could have foreseen in 1992, when the J.League was formed, that Kashima -- then an obscure second-tier team from a relatively small city --would dominate the league's first two decades of existence.

The team traces its history back to the formation of the Sumitomo Metal Industries club team, in 1947. The team remained an informal club, taking part in inter-company competitions until 1974, when it entered the second division of the Japan Soccer League (JSL), and relocated its home field to Kashima Town, in Ibaraki Prefecture, which was home to one of Sumitomo Metal's main factories. It wasn't until 1986 that the team managed to win promotion to the first division, and even after that, Sumitomo Metal Industries was a relative weakling compared to such JSL powerhouses as Nissan Motors (later Yokohama Marinos) and Yomiuri Club (later Verdy Kawasaki).

Kashima's climb to the pinnacle of Japanese football can be traced to 1991, when the leading members of the JSL decided to form a full professional football league, and the man whose career inextricably linked to Antlers' success was Brazilian sensation Zico. In March 1991, the team approached Zico and asked if he would be willing to close out his career in Japan. As most football fans know, Zico was a superstar in his heyday, but in 1991 he was in his late 30s, and contemplating retirement. Kashima convinced Zico to join the team for its 1992 season - the final year of JSL play - to help it win a position in the soon-to-be-created J.League. The rest, as they say, is history.

The team changed its name in 1992 to Kashima Antlers. The team's name is derived from the name of its home town - the literal meaning of "Kashima" is "deer island". Led by Zico and his Brazilian teammates Alcindo and Santos, Antlers finished high in the JSL rankings in 1992. But the greatest surprise was yet to come. In the very first stage of J.League competition, Kashima bested the league powerhouses, Marinos, Verdy and others, securing the first-ever stage victory. Unfortunately, they were beaten by Verdy in the Championship Series, and the 41-year-old Zico was unable to carry his team to victory the following year. Zico retired without a championship,. but with the undying respect and gratitude of Antlers fans.

The bond between Zico and Kashima Antlers was so strong, in fact, that the team prevailed upon him to accept the job of technical director in 1995. Under his guidance, Kashima built the league's most successful franchise, featuring a great many former and current national team stars, as well as popular foreign players such as Jorginho, Leonardo, Mazinho and others. Although Zico moved on to take over the Japan national team coaching position in 2002, and then left the country following that experience to coach in Europe, the tradition that he founded continues today and in 2018 he returned to the club again as "director of football". Antlers are the most successful team in J.League history, achieving a domestic treble in 2000, and three consecutive league titles between 2007 and 2009 among other achievements.

One tribute to the strength of the Kashima Antlers organisation is the large number of former Antlers who are now starting players at other teams in the league. Kashima always had a very strong youth program, supported in part by Zico's keen eye for talented young players. A great many J.League stars have come up through the Antlers programme, and when they have failed to find a starting position, moved on to first-team spots at other league clubs. The continuing influx of top players has kept Kashima in the top ranks of the league since 1996, when they captured their first league title. Since then, Antlers have had their ups and downs, but it is rare for them to be completely out of the title picture.

Kashima Stadium received a facelift in 2000 and 2001, to expand capacity and prepare it for the World Cup. The improved facility opened in May 2001, and remains one of the largest football-only facilities in the country. It was used as a Confederations Cup venue in the summer of 2001, as well as a World Cup venue in 2002, and it continues to be used on occasion for international matches despite the fact that it is a good two-hour train ride from Tokyo. You might say that Antlers fans are a bit spoiled, with one of the league's perennial contenders to support, at one of Japan's best stadiums.

After their Nabisco Cup triumph in 2002, the team went through a period of adjustment. Though most other teams would not view it as a particularly poor run, for the Antlers this could be described as a "slump". For five years, there were no additions to the trophy room underneath Kashima Stadium. A variety of factors hurt the team, not least of which was the fact that several of the team's top players parlayed their success into an international career, and moved to overseas clubs. At the end of 2005, Toninho Cerezo stepped down after five years as head coach, and the team made some personnel adjustments. It is hard to say which factor - the coaching strategy of coach Paulo Autori, the departure of Mitsuo Ogasawara to Italy, in mid-season, or the difficulties the team had in making a transition to a younger group of players - caused the biggest ripple. However, the team fell a bit short of its usual position, among the championship candidates.

But Kashima's underlying success has always been founded on its fine recruiting and youth development programme. Even as the top stars of Kashima's "Golden Era" left the team, they were replaced by younger players who showed just as much promise. Antlers' dramatic late run in 2007, to overtake Urawa Reds and win the championship on the final day of the season, was led by the inspirational play of the returned Mitsuo Ogasawara. But a new generation of players made key contributions to the effort, and in 2008, this younger generation started to come into their own. When Ogasawara was sidelined in mid-season with a serious knee injury, a new crop of "stars" such as Atsuto Uchida, Daiki Iwamasa and Shinzo Koroki took over the central roles and carried Antlers to their sixth league title. The team followed up this success with a third consecutive league title in 2009, confirming their status as the J.League's most successful team ever.

The 2009 season marked the high-water mark of Kashima's second "golden era". As the J.League moved into an era of greater parity, Kashima had increasing difficulty maintaining the dominant position they held during most of the League's first two decades. However, they have certainly demonstrated their resilience as a club, and their ability to remain consistently among the front-runners. The fine coaching of Oswaldo Oliveira, a former World Club Championship winner with Corinthians, helped to cultivate a new base of players. Antlers claimed their 14th major title on New Year's Day 2011, with a victory in the Emperor's Cup, kicking off a 2011 campaign that brought the Antlers yet another piece of silverware, and allowed coach Oliveira to step down after what surely ranks as one of the most successful coaching careers in J.League history. He led the team to three consecutive league titles, and secured all of the major domestic trophies (League, Emperor's Cup, Nabisco Cup and Xerox SuperCup).

In 2012, former Antlers player Jorginho took the reins of the club as head coach, and began the process of moving older veterans out of the way to make room for the young promising players on the squad to blossom into solid contributors. Uchida and Masahiko Inoha had already departed, for Europe, and during the 2012 off-season, Takuya Nozawa and Yuzo Tashiro moved to Vissel Kobe, leaving only Ogasawara, Motoyama and Koji Nakata from the treble-winning squad of 2000. The team's last change of generation suggests that it makes sense to clear out the veterans quickly, so that the team can make the transition swiftly. However, this meant that Kashima spent the next few years struggling to overcome the "inexperience" of all its second- and third-year players, all of whom were asked to play key roles

Jorginho lasted only one season, but he did his job well, clearing the decks of veterans and handing the torch to a new generation. In 2013 and 2014, Toninho Cerezo was invited back for his second string as Antlers head coach. He helped the team complete its generational shift, and laid a solid foundation for the future, as well as adding to the trophy cabinet with a Nabisco Cup title. In 2014, however, management decided it was time to signal a completely new era, and handed the coaching reins to former Antlers defender Masatada Ishiii, who had taken part, as a player, part in the team's very first league championship in 1996.

Ishii launched what would be the most recent phase of glory for the Golden Herd, allowing a new generation of stars to find their places in the Kashima Pantheon. Striker Yuya Osako, midfielders Gaku Shibasaki and Yasushi Endo, wingback Daigo Nishi and the central defensive pairing of Gen Shoji and Naomichi Ueda took their places as the new framework of the team, while veterans Ogsasawara and Sogahata remained to provide leadership and experience. In 2015 Ishii led this unit to the Emperor's Cup title -- Antlers' first piece of silverware in three years.

The following season this generation of Kashima stags hit their stride. Players like Gaku Shibasaki, Daigo Nishi, Yasushi Endo and Atsutaka Nakamura had reached their prime, while youngsters like Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda and Yuma Suzuki were beginning to settle in as first-team regulars. The first accomplishment in 2016 was a Nabisco Cup. The 2016 season was also the last season that featured two stages and a playoff. With Caio and Mu Kanazaki providing the goals and Ogasawara masterfully organizing the young squad, Kashima recovered from a late season slump to beat Kawasaki Frontale in the first playoff, then Urawa Reds in the League Final. Ogasawara claimed Man of the Match.

But the climax was yet to come. As the J.League champions, Kashima earned the honour of representing the host country, at FIFA's 2016 Club World Cup, in Tokyo. The Antlers made short work of South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns, on goals by Endo and new starlet Yuma Suzuki, then claimed an even more impressive 3-0 victory over South American representatives Atletico Nacional. Gaku Shibasaki -- whose performances at this tournament would earn him contract offers from Spain -- got things started when his drive into the box was halted by an outthrust Argentinian leg. Shoma Doi struck the resulting PK and gave the Antlers a halftime lead.

In the second half Atletico put on a spell of intense pressure, searching for the equaliser, and only some fine saves by Sogahata kept the South Americans at bay. But Ishii noted how high the wingbacks were playing, and substituted in Kanazaki to serve as a counterattacking target. With ten minutes on the clock, Kanazaki burst down the left flank with Doi on his shoulder, both a step ahead of the Atletico defense. As the defenders sprinted to cut off Kanazaki, and force him into the corner, nobody noticed Yasushi Endo, cutting in from the opposite sideline. Kanazaki fired the ball low and hard. Endo arrived just half a step ahead of the keeper, backheeling the ball into an open net.

Now the Argentine club had to throw caution to the wind, and throw everyone into the attack -- a risky play against a team as defensively resilient as the Antlers. Just a few minutes later, another Kanazaki gallop was finished off by Suzuki, sending Kashima into the final, against Real Madrid.

The Antlers - Real Madrid contest ranks as perhaps the brightest moment in Kashima history. A defensive lapse and an unfortunate rebound, just eight minutes after kickoff, allowed Benzema to fire at Sogahata from just twelve yards out. But Shibasaki levelled the score just before half time, then finished off a fine attacking move to put the Antlers up 2-1, in the 54th minute. Unfortunately, a late PK (and a questionable decision by the ref to put the yellow card back in his pocket, after nearly sending off Sergio Ramos) allowed Real to restore parity. In additional time the Antlers simply ran out of gas, and Christiano Ronaldo put them away with two additional time goals. Nevertheless, the impressive performance earned many of the Kashima players attention from overseas clubs. Gaku Shibasaki signed a contract with Tenerife just days later, and Caio was lured to the Middle East by the largesse of a Qatari club.

The curtain descended on this phase of Antlers' success in 2018, when at long last the Golden Herd of Kashima won the Asian Champions League. For years the team had focused on domestic success rather than Asian play, but in the wake of their Club World Cup exploits, there were no other targets left to aim at. With new faces like Kento Misao, Hiroki Abe, Koki Anzai and Leo Silva taking over the spotlight, Kashima steamrolled their way to the final, and then defeated Persepolis 2-0 on aggregate. By the end of the 2018 season, however, European clubs were already snatching away some of the top talent, one by one. An era of glory ended when Mitsuo Ogaswawara announced his retirement at the end of 2018. With an ACL title finally in his grasp, the Kashima legend had the final jewel of his career, which includes eight J.League best elevens, seven league titles, six Nabisco Cups, five Emperor's Cup crowns, four Xerox cups, three World Cup campaigns, two Asian Cups and an ACL trophy in a pear tree! He also was named league MVP, MVP in two league title matches, one Nabisco Cup and one Emperor's Cup title match. Though he was always a quiet, low-key player who actively avoided the spotlight, Ogasawara's record of success may never be matched. 

While the symbolic loss of their longtime captain was a blow, this was just the first of many departures. Shoji, Ueda, Suzuki, Abe and Anzai all followed Shibasaki to Europe, while aging veterans like Kanazaki and Nishi were released to other J.League clubs. Although a younger generation of promising players stepped in to keep the team in the top three, in 2019, it seems likely that the Antlers will need a year or two to resume their pursuit of silverware. Nevertgheless, history shows that the legacy of champion-like mentality that Zico planted in the rich soil of Ibaraki is transferred from one generation to the next. Whatever happens, you can be sure that the Golden Herd of Ibaraki will make their presence felt. The balance of competition in the J.League may change from year to year, but it is always a good bet that the Antlers will be in the thick of the chase.


*Links in the tables below lead to the team's match-by-match results for that season

Team Results for 1993-02

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 1 13       5 41 18 +23
1993 (2nd) 4 10       8 31 25 +6
1994 (1st) 3 16       6 45 32 +13
1994 (2nd) 5 11       11 44 36 +8
1995 (1st) 8 14   0   12 38 38 0
1995 (2nd) 6 14   1   11 44 41 +3
1996 1 21   3   6 61 34 +27
1997 (1st) 1 12 0 1   3 32 15 +17
1997 (2nd) 4 9 2 0   5 46 23 +23
1998 (1st) 5 10 1 0   6 41 28 +13
1998 (2nd) 1 12 3 0   2 38 15 +23
1999 (1st) 9 5 1   1 8 23 19 +4
1999 (2nd) 6 6 2   0 7 30 18 +12
2000 (1st) 8 6 2   0 7 20 17 +3
2000 (2nd) 1 9 1   4 1 28 10 +18
2001 (1st) 11 5 1   1 8 21 23 -2
2001 (2nd) 1 10 3   0 2 36 19 +17
2002 (1st) 5 9 0   0 6 21 18 +3
2002 (2nd) 3 8 1   0 6 25 21 +4

 Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 8  23 7 2 6 23 21 +2
2003 (2nd) 4  25 6 7 2 21 19 +2
2004 (1st) 5  24 7 3 5 18 14 +4
2004 (2nd) 4  24 7 3 5 23 17 +6
2005 3 59 16 11 7 61 39 +22
2006 6 58 18 4 12 62 53 +9
2007 1 72 22 6 6 60 36 +24
2008 1 63 18 9 7 56 30 +26
2009 1 66 20 6 8 51 30 +21
2010 4 60 16 12 6 51 31 +20
2011 6 50 13 11 10 53 40 +13
2012 11 46 12 10 12 50 43 +7
2013 5 59 18 5 11 60 52 +8
2014 3 60 18 6 10 64 39 +21
2015 (1st) 8 22 6 4  7 27 25 +2
2015 (2nd) 2 37 12 1  4 30 16 +14
2016 (1st) 1 39 12 3 2 29 10 +19
2016 (2nd) 11 20 6 2 9 24 24 0
2017 2 72 23 3 8 53 31 +22
2018 3 56 16 8 10 50 39 +11
2019 3 63 18 9 7 54 30 +24

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "golden goal" overtime