Monday, 25 January 2021

Kashiwa Reysol is one of the oldest clubs in the J.League. The team got its start in 1940, as the soccer team of Hitachi. The team was fairly successful during the mid-1970s, winning several Emperor's Cup and League Championships and contributing several players to the Japan National Team. In1986, the team moved from its former base in Koganei city, a western suburb of Tokyo, to Kashiwa, about an hour northeast of Tokyo. In 1992, the name of the team was changed to Kashiwa Reysol, in preparation for J.League membership. Reysol is a pseudo-Portuguese word taken from the words "Rei" (king) and "Sol" (sun). While this name is a thinly disguised plug for the parent company, Hitachi, the "sun king" became a very popular mascot with Kashiwa fans.

Unfortunately, Reysol failed to make the first cut for the J.League, and was forced to fight for promotion from the JFL. The team's success in achieving that goal owes much to the famed Brazilian midfielder Careca, who joined Reysol in 1992 and almost single-handedly carried them to the top of the JFL. Thanks to Careca's efforts, the team was elevated to the J.League in 1995. Unfortunately, as Careca's age began to catch up with him, the team's lack of talent at other positions became more apparent. After his retirement, Reysol struggled near the bottom of the league for several years, though it was beginning to develop some talented youngsters who would form the core of the team in future years.

In 1997, the team brought in Mr. Akira Nishino, who had led Japan's 1996 Olympic team to victory against Brazil in Atlanta. Under the direction of Nishino, the team began to gel, mainly around an aggressive defence, the core of which is provided by keeper Yuta Minami. a former U-21 and U-23 team member, and veteran Korean libero Hong Myung-Bo, who appeared in three World Cups for the Korean national team. The team's aggressive play helped Reysol advance to the top ranks of the league in the late 1990s, and in mid-2000, Kashiwa added Hwang Sun-Hong, a Korean striker who led the J.League in scoring in 1999, when he played for Cerezo Osaka. In 2000, Reysol reached its high water mark, falling just a single point shy of winning the second stage in 2000, losing out in the final match of the season against their local nemesis, Kashima Antlers.

Though many viewed Reysol's success in 2000 as a sign that the team was on its way to future success, a series of inexcusable management blunders turned the team from championship contenders into dispirited deadbeats in the depths of disarray, in the space of just five years. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, just six months after Nishino had taken Reysol to within a whisker of a championship, the folks in the Reysol board room became restless, and brought in former S-Pulse manager Steve Perryman as Nishino's "assistant". Perryman never disguised the fact that he considered himself a better coach than Nishino, and following a few weak performances in early 2001, he somehow managed to convince the team bureaucrats that he should be given full charge of the team. Halfway through the season, Nishino -- who had been extremely popular with his players -- was suddenly fired and replaced by Perryman.

The move was so abrupt and so unexpected that team morale was devastated. Nishino got the news as he was preparing to lead his team onto the field for a match, and the unpleasant aftermatch was captured live on nationwide TV. Nishino, weeping openly, addressed the fans at the end of the match telling them how much he loved the team, and begging the players to "fight on" without him, and many key players also broke down in tears on camera, vosing to dedicate "everything we do for the rest of the season to the memory of Mr. Nishino". Whatever one might believe about Perryman's abilities as a coach, the way that he took power ensured that he would receive no "honeymoon" with either fans or players. When Reysol finished well down the rankings in 2001, the inevitable finger-pointing started, and there were already signs that Reysol was on the road to ruin.

The 2002 season confirmed the folly of Reysol management's decision to remove coach Nishino and hand the team over to Perryman. Even with complete control of the team, was unable to implement the system he wanted to instil in the team -- based on quick passing and rapid movement. There may have been some lingering ill will against him in the clubhouse, but the main reason for this failure was that Perryman seemed to lack the ability to appraise his players. His strategy might have worked, with the right personnel, but the skills of the players he had available simply did not fit the pattern Perryman had chosen. Perryman also failed to earn the trust of his players, and was widely resented by some key individuals. When things began to go wrong, his response was to blame players for not following his instructions. This simply added momentum to the team's downward spiral. Having failed to deliver on his promises of victory, Perryman was shown the door, and Reysol had to go back to the drawing board, to try to rebuild the team.

But the team's collapse in 2001 and 2002 was difficult to reverse. Reysol never was a very well-financed club, and though they did a good job of developing young talent in their youth organisation, they lacked the funds to attract quality veterans. One by one, the players who were able to do so moved on to other clubs, leaving a group of bitter and aging veterans who knew that their best chances of success had been stolen from them, and a collection of tenagers who were coming of age on a team that had lost its confidence and team spirit. Reysol just barely managed to avoid relegation in 2002 and 2003, and in 2004 they were forced to play a promotion-relegation match against the third-placed J2 team in order to keep their spot in the J1.

Kashiwa somehow evaded relegation once again, and in early 2005 there were some incications that the team might be starting to find its way back to competitiveness. But bad luck continued to plague the team, in the form of untimely injuries. Furthermore, management still had not learned its lesson from the Nishino-Perryman fiasco, and midway through the season they brought in naturalised Brazilian and former Japan NT player Rui Ramos as an "assistant" to coach Hiroshi Hayano. Whether true or not, there were numerous rumours that Ramos was there as a "replacement coach in waiting", and this simply generated more angst in an already troubled locker room. Quite early in the season, Reysol stopped playing as a team, and each player started to try to do everything individually. From that point on, their fate was sealed. At the end of 2005, Reysol again were forced to take part in the promotion-relegation series, and this time they lost dramatically to Ventforet Kofu, earning a trip back to the J2.

In retrospect, relegation may have been the best thing to happen to Reysol since the departure of coach Nishino. The team axed all of the older players who were no longer contributing much to the team harmony, and rebuilt on a base of talented youngsters including Tadanari Lee, Minoru Suganuma, Ryo Kobayashi and Yuzo Kobayashi. In addition, the team received far better support from the front office than in past years, and fans sensed a much more welcoming attitude which translated into better attendances even before the team regained a J1 spot in 2007. Reysol surprised just about everyone by not only rebounding to the top-flight in a single season, but by going on to place eighth in 2007 -- their highest finish since 2001.

Unfortunately, Reysol is a prime example of how poor management can hobble even an otherwise energetic and promising football club. After rebounding from one stint in the J2, the team adopted a "strategy" almost identical to the one that got them relegated the first time. First, the management demanded excessive results from an otherwise successful and popular coach, in Nobuhiro Ishizaki.  After reviving the team completely in 2006 and 2007, and rebuilding it in a far more successful pattern, Ishizaki "only" managed to take the team to 11th place in 2008. While most rational observers felt that this was about what Reysol deserved, based on the relative youth of most players and a lack of money for top-notch acquisitions, the head office didnt see it that way. At the end of 2008 they replaced him with a completely unknown and untested Shinichiro Takahashi, whose main qualification was as youth team coach over the previous two seasons.

The decision to release coach Ishizaki, the architect of their revival, demonstrated that management was as clueless and self-destructive as ever. As with the firing of Nishino, ten years earlier, this seriously hurt team morale and forced young players to learn an entirely new system from a coach who they didnt fully trust, much less respect. Furthermore, the coach and management rested their entire hopes on a few overpriced and aging Brazilians, who certainly had talent, but couldnt carry the team all by themselves. Indeed, when friction developed between the Brazilian contingent and Lee Tadanari - who was seeing less playing time as a result - the team opted to sell off the young and highly promising striker to Sanfrecce. This further damaged team morale. The blowback was almost immediate. Within just a few months, the patient work that Ishizaki had done to build a competitive J1 team had all been undone, and the Sun Kings were on their way back to second-tier status. Even the arrival of the wily Brazilian coach Nelsinho, at the end of 2009, was not enough to salvage a J1 spot. Reysol tumbled into the J2 for the second time.

The only positive outcome of this drama was the arrival of Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho), a widely travelled coach who had put in previous J.League stints at Verdy Kawasaki and Nagoya Grampus.  Nelsinho not only had a clear idea of what is needed to achieve success in the J.League; he also had learned the hard way (during his sojourn at Nagoya) that former corporate suits in positions of power can be a serious obstacle to team success. Before agreeing to remain at the helm for another season, Nelsinho insisted on complete control over personnel decisions.

During the 2009-10 offseason the coach began assembling a very talented group of players, many of them youngsters from various youth teams in the greater Tokyo area, bolstered by some older players who had spent some time overseas, like Wataru Hashimoto and Masakatsu Sawa. Reysol was also fortunate to have a fanatically loyal fan base -- the self-proclaimed "Yellow Monkeys" -- which has remained faithful through both good times and bad. The team could still benefit from a more thorough housecleaning at the corporate headquarters, but at least under Nelsinho's firm hand, the interference that had troubled the club in previous seasons was minimized.

The 2010 season was a very successful one, as the Sun Kings once again used the challenge of relegation to rid itself of older and unproductive players, while cultivating youth. Kids such as Yuki Otsu, Akimi Barada, Yusuke Murakami, Junya Tanaka, Ryohei Hayashi, Masato Kudo, and the aforementioned Sawa and Hashimoto, carried Reysol to the J2 title in 2010, and provided a strong boost of enthusiasm and optimism among supporters and players alike. The influence of Nelsinho on the entire Reysol organization - not only on the pitch but also in the front offices - gave the team a jolt of energy like nothing fans in Kashiwa had seen before. Nelsinho's youngsters swept into the J1 like a strong March breeze, and swept the competition before it.

By the time the rest of the league recovered, Reysol had established such a strong position at the front of the pack that they were able to fight off late charges by Gamba and Grampus. In December 2012 - just two years after the team had succumbed to relegation - Reysol hoisted their first J1 trophy. The Sun Kings also earned a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup, and used the spotlight to good effect, defeating Auckland and Monterrey before finally succumbing to South American representatives Santos, 3-1. Overseas scouts were impressed by players like Yuki Otsuand Junya Tanaka, who would soon depart for Europe.

Following that one magnificent season, the Sun Kings slipped back down to a position in the table that matches more closely to their longer-term average. Nelsinho continued to generate solid results with a fast-paced style of football, but opposing teams had figured out his strategies and developed countermeasures that prevented Reysol from dominating as they had in early 2011. The one positive thing that can be said about the subsequent five years is that management seemed to learn to keep their noses out of the day-to-day operations, and let the coach run things as he sees fit.

However, it would not last. In 2014 the Sun Kings blazed out of the starting gate and by midsummer, when they reached their zenith, most observers thought the team was on the road to a repeat of 2011. Unfortunately, the Brazilian gaffer's long history of conflict with (what are in his eyes) egotistical players who have forgotten about the team, provoked grumbling from some of the team's veterans. Nelsinho was up for contract renewal, and when he met with management before the summer break, he apparently got into a row with someone in the team's front office. Never one to back down from a threat, the coach went straight to a bank of TV cameras and announced that he was stepping down, due to "irreconcilable differences."

Their bluff had been called. Reysol management were forced to back down, and after just one game under a caretaker, Nelsinho was back in the coaching chair. Nobody but the principals know exactly what was said, but apparently the team convinced Nelsinho to return on his own conditions, albeit only for the remainder of the year. Not surprisingly, this little drama shattered team unity, and the Sun Kings sank to fourth place by December. Nelsinho stepped down at the end of the 2014 season.

After six seasons under a single guiding force, Reysol had difficulty finding a new coach who could guide the team as effectively. Tatsuma Yoshida led the team to a disappointing tenth-place finish in 2015, and his replacement Milton Mendes stepped down after just three games. This sudden resignation may have simply been a sign of the aging Brazilian's inability to adjust to Japan, but onlookers worried that perhaps management was back to its old meddling ways. Takahiro Shimodaira -- a former Reysol midfielder and youth coach -- took over from Mendes, and provided some stability, for the first time since Nelsinho's departure. The offensive punch of two former Ventforet Kofu products -- Junya Ito and Cristiano -- and the emergence of future NT prospect goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura, Reysol battled to a fourth-place finish in 2017. For the first time since their glory period, Reysol were back in ACL competition.

Sadly, as so many other small-budget teams have done over the years, Reysol stretched themselves too thin trying to achieve continental success, in 2018. Junya Ito departed for Europe at midseason, Cristiano missed important contests due to injury, and an aging defense struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard. By the time they realised the danger, it was too late. Reysol finished 17th, and began a third exile to the second division.

As in the case of other ACL-inflicted relegations past, Reysol were still a very competitive team. Their only mistake had been to overextend a limited team budget and a shallow squad. Once back in a less demanding competition, they were more than a match for J2 opponents. Cowed by the negative blowback from their past mistakes, Reysol management turned once again to Nelson Baptista Junior, who apparently had either forgiven or forgotten the 2014 season. Under his steady tutelage, a new generation of youngsters took their places in the squad, including striker Yusuke Segawa and midfielder Ataru Esaka. The team had also signed young Kenyan prospect Michael Olunga during their disappointing 2018 campaign, and the 193-cm target man proved to be a perfect foil for Cristiano. The two combined for 46 goals to demolish all contenders and lead Reysol to their second J2 title. 

Only time will tell what is in store for the Sun Kings, in the future. The first quarter-century concluded with a quick return to J1, under Nelsinho, who resumed control of the club when they were relegated. They may have to wait a few years before they get another chance at silverware, but if the pencil pushers can finally learn to keep their hands off and let Nelsinho cultivate his youngsters, the Sun may rise for Reysol once again.

Team Results for 1995-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1995 (1st) 14 7   1   18 30 46 -16
1995 (2nd) 5 14   1   11 57 54 3
1996 5 20   0   10 67 52 15
1997 (1st) 3 10 1 0   5 34 18 16
1997 (2nd) 10 6 1 0   9 29 31 -2
1998 (1st) 10 6 1 2   8 32 35 -3
1998 (2nd) 8 8 0 1   8 24 26 -2
1999 (1st) 4 9 1   0 5 26 18 8
1999 (2nd) 4 8 2   1 4 23 18 5
2000 (1st) 4 6 4   0 5 25 22 3
2000 (2nd) 2 9 2   1 3 23 10 13
2001 (1st) 6 6 2   0 7 29 23 +6
2001 (2nd) 7 6 0   3 6 29 23 +6
2002 (1st) 14 3 1   0 11 20 31 -11
2002 (2nd) 9 6 0   3 6 18 17 +1

Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 9 21 6 3 6 19 19 +0
2003 (2nd) 11 16 3 7 5 16 20 -4
2004 (1st) 15 12 3 3 9 14 22 -8
2004 (2nd) 15 13 2 7 6 15 27 -12
2005 16 35 8 11 15 39 54 -15
2006 (J2) 2 88 27 7 14 84 60 +24
2007 8 50 14 8 12 43 36 +7
2008 11 46 13 7 14 48 45 +3
2009 16 34 7 13 14 41 57 -16
2010 (J2) 1 80 23 11 2 71 24 +47
2011 1 72 23 3 8 65 42 +23
2012 6 52 15 7 12 57 52 +5
2013 10 48 13 9 12 56 59 -3
2014 4 60 17 9 48 40 +8
2015 (1st) 14 18 4 22 25 -3
2015 (2nd) 8 27 8 3 6 24 18 +6
2016 (1st) 7 24 6 6 5 20 21 -1
2016 (2nd) 5 30 9 3 5 32 23 +9
2017 4 62 18 8 8 49 33 +16
2018 17 39 12 3 19 47 54 -7
2019 (J2) 1 84 25 9 8 85 33 +52
2020 7 52 15 7 12 60 46 +14

*Note: Data for pre-2005 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to a single-stage season