Here is a team-by-team preview of the 18 clubs in the J. League’s first division this season:
Yokohama F. Marinos Last season: 1st stage 1st, 2nd stage 6th, overall 1st.
Manager: Takeshi Okada.
One to watch: Hideo Oshima, a striker from Montedio Yamagata with an eye for goal.
Takeshi Okada and his experienced Marinos squad will be shooting for a third consecutive league title — and the club’s fourth in all — after winning both stages in 2003 and the first stage, followed by the championship playoff in a penalty shootout, last year. Marinos’ first league title came in 1995.
Two of his senior players, South Korean all-rounder Yoo Sang Chul and right winger Yukihiko Sato, have moved on, and the extra cash available has enabled Okada to sign playmaker Koji Yamase from Urawa Reds for 250 million yen. Okada and Yamase will be reunited after first working together at Consadole Sapporo.
Marinos have already played four high-profile preseason friendlies, during which Okada has been able to test his deep squad due to a lengthy injury list headed by his Japan-South Korea strike force of Tatsuhiko Kubo and Ahn Jung Hwan, as well as influential defender Naoki Matsuda and new Brazilian marksman Adhemar.
Central defender Yuji Nakazawa, J. League MVP in 2004, has been Okada’s key player for the past two seasons, but he may move to Europe during the summer. Whether he stays or goes could determine Marinos’ destiny.
Urawa Reds Last season: 1st stage 3rd, 2nd stage 1st, overall 2nd.
Manager: Guido Buchwald.
One to watch: Prolific Brazilian forward Emerson, who has bagged 67 goals in 88 league games for Urawa.
German manager Guido Buchwald is glad to see the back of the two-stage championship, especially after his team won more points (62) than any other over the two stages last year, but still finished second.
But he wasn’t quite so pleased to lose playmaker Koji Yamase to title rivals Yokohama F. Marinos, despite a transfer profit of 150 million yen. Urawa had stuck by Yamase during two injury-hit seasons, offering him an improved contract to stay, but the talented midfielder moved on.
While acknowledging that his squad is weaker without Yamase, Buchwald believes his team can be stronger overall as his other Japanese players are improving and gaining more experience. He is referring to the likes of defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, the midfield trio of Keita Suzuki, Tadaaki Hirakawa and Makoto Hasebe, and strikers Yuichiro Nagai and Tatsuya Tanaka.
With national squad defender Keisuke Tsuboi fit again after injury, Buchwald will be spoiled for choice at the back, where Tulio and imports Nene (Brazil) and Alpay Ozalan (Turkey) formed a formidable back three in the second half of last season.
Gamba Osaka Last season: 1st stage 4th, 2nd stage 3rd, overall 3rd.
Manager: Akira Nishino.
One to watch: Masashi Oguro, a penalty box poacher who has the habit of being in the right place at the right time.
Before every season the same question is asked: Will this be Gamba’s year?
The J. League would love it if it were, as it would boost the profile of soccer in Kansai, and Gamba cannot be ruled out of the title race this season.
Hiring and firing expensive foreign players has been the club’s normal practice, but that policy has changed this time and manager Akira Nishino knows exactly the quality of the Brazilians at his disposal. Experienced defender Sidiclei and the tricky midfielder Fernandinho return from last season, and the new addition is striker Araujo, who netted nine goals in 29 games for Shimizu S-Pulse in 2004. No Gamba gambles here.
With a big squad — including national team players Tsuneyasu Miyamoto at the back, Yasuhito Endo in midfield and Masashi Oguro, Japan’s hero against North Korea at Saitama last month, up front — Gamba will be strong in all departments.
Watch out, too, for playmaker Takahiro Futagawa, rated highly by Japan’s national team captain Miyamoto.
Could this be Gamba’s year? Miyamoto is optimistic it will be.
JEF United Chiba Last season: 1st stage 7th, 2nd stage 2nd, overall 4th.
Manager: Ivica Osim.
One to watch: Naotake Hanyu, a bright and industrious attacking midfielder.
It was the end of an era in more ways than one at the Rinkai Seaside Stadium in Chiba Prefecture last season.
After 12 J. League seasons known as JEF United Ichihara, the club added Chiba to the formal title to expand the catchment area. But the hometown of Ichihara has been dropped from the abbreviated version.
From October, United will also stage some home games at a new stadium at Soga, much closer to Chiba City than the current venue at Goi, and within easy walking distance of the nearest station. This, the club hopes, will boost the average home attendance to 15,000 from just over 10,000 last year.
On the pitch, JEF lost two experienced first-team players in defender Takayuki Chano and left winger Shinji Murai to Jubilo Iwata, and all three foreign players have gone, including the Slovenian World Cup defender Zeljko Milinovic, who had four rock-solid seasons with the team.
Wily manager Ivica Osim, Yugoslavia’s head coach at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, has worked wonders in his two over-achieving years as manager, but will have to start almost from scratch with a new team for this season. The three new imports are Bulgarian defender Ilian Stoyanov, Romanian midfielder Gabriel Popescu and Austrian striker Mario Haas, and watch out for an innovative 2-6-2 formation.
Jubilo Iwata Last season: 1st stage 2nd, 2nd stage 13th, overall 5th.
Manager: Masakuni Yamamoto.
One to watch: Choi Yong Soo. After battering J2 defenses for Kyoto for one season, the “Eagle” has landed back in the big league.
Former Olympic team head coach Masakuni Yamamoto took over at Iwata for the last three league games of 2004, but he couldn’t halt a dramatic second-stage slump which saw Jubilo finish a lowly 13th of 16 teams.
There was speculation of a winter clearance of yesterday’s heroes such as Toshihiro Hattori, Hiroshi Nanami and Masashi Nakayama, but the club remained loyal and kept them all on.
Not only that, but around 700 million yen was paid to JEF United for the services of defender Takayuki Chano, left winger Shinji Murai and Korean striker Choi Yong Soo, who had been on loan from JEF to Kyoto Purple Sanga in J2 last season.
Another high-profile arrival at Yamaha Stadium is national team goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who decided to return home to Shizuoka Prefecture after three years in England and Denmark.
With the Brazilian striker Rodrigo Gral still around, plus a group of versatile youngsters such as Ryoichi Maeda, Sho Naruoka, Bobby Cullen, Yasumasa Nishino and Naoya Kikuchi, Yamamoto has a big squad to work with and one capable of winning the league championship.
Kashima Antlers Last season: 1st stage 5th, 2nd stage 4th, overall 6th.
Manager: Toninho Cerezo.
One to watch: Mitsuo Ogasawara. The ball-playing midfielder can turn any game with one piece of magic.
Antlers fans who gorged on trophies in the recent past have not been able to celebrate a league championship since 2001, or a major domestic title since the Nabisco Cup in 2002.
The natives are getting restless in Ibaraki Prefecture and want their team to be back among the leaders, but manager Toninho Cerezo knows it will not be easy.
This is the Brazilian’s sixth season at Kashima, and he must work without one of his best and most experienced players in Koji Nakata, who has joined the Euro trail and teamed up with former national coach Philippe Troussier at Olympique Marseille.
Nakata masterminded the Antlers midfield, controlling the pace and the flow of the game, and Toninho is hoping that the gifted but erratic Takeshi Aoki can finally step up and assume a leading role in the team.
The left-footed Brazilian midfielder Fernando returns for a third season, and the club is hoping that new Brazilian recruits Alex Mineiro, a much-traveled forward, and midfielder Ari will prove more successful than recent transfer flops such as Claudecir, Da Silva and Fabio Junior.
Nagoya Grampus Eight Last season: 1st stage 8th, 2nd stage 5th, overall 7th.
One to watch: Naoshi Nakamura, a dangerous raider behind the front two.
Former Verdy manager Nelsinho will be starting his second full season in charge at Nagoya, after taking over from Zdenko Verdenik midway through the 2003 campaign.
Last year, Grampus improved from eighth in the first stage to fifth in the second for an overall placing of seventh, which is still too low for the generous investment made annually by Toyota.
Nelsinho will build his team around his three Brazilian players, with Marques and Ueslei in partnership up front, and Claiton anchoring the midfield.
Ueslei (80 goals in 116 appearances) was the league’s leading scorer in 2003 with 22 goals, but was upstaged last term by Marques, whose 17 in 29 games gives him a healthy strike rate of 22 goals in 48 appearances.
Nelsinho, however, feels that his front two need more support from midfield, so he will be looking to Naoshi Nakamura and 18-year-old Keisuke Honda to ease some of the attacking burden on the Brazilian tandem.
The 12 newcomers include North Korean midfielder An Yong Hak, who played for Albirex Niigata for three seasons before his winter transfer.
FC Tokyo Last season: 1st stage 6th, 2nd stage 10th, overall 8th.
Manager: Hiromi Hara.
One to watch: Naohiro Ishikawa, a right-wing flyer who is a constant threat.
Victory in last season’s Nabisco Cup final — a first title for the club in six J. League campaigns — masked a rare slump in league form for Tokyo during the second stage.
Manager Hiromi Hara will be keen to address that situation this term, and he has every reason to be optimistic.
Brazilian central defender Jean Witte is one of the most consistent, and under-rated, foreign players in the league, and striker Lucas is confident of beating his modest haul of 11 goals last season, his first in Japan.
This club rarely makes mistakes in the transfer market, and the replacement for injury-prone forward Kelly is the stocky midfielder Danilo, signed from Internacional in Brazil. He is a very different kind of player to Kelly, preferring to take the ball off his defenders in deep positions and spray passes out to the wings, before supporting the attack through the middle.
FC Tokyo provides two members of Zico’s national squad — reserve keeper Yoichi Doi and right back Akira Kaji — but there is a general feeling, both in and outside the club, that it should be more. Central defender Teruyuki Moniwa, all-action midfielder Yasuyuki Konno and right winger Naohiro Ishikawa are all knocking on the Brazilian’s door, and can strengthen their claims this season.
Tokyo Verdy 1969 Last season: 1st stage 9th, 2nd stage 9th, overall 9th.
Manager: Ossie Ardiles
One to watch: Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, a smooth operator in midfield, much admired by his Argentine boss.
There was no denying Verdy’s consistency last season, with two ninth-place finishes worth ninth place overall, but manager Ossie Ardiles will be expecting much more this season.
He looks sure to get it, as confidence is sky-high following victory over Jubilo Iwata in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day and over league champions Yokohama F. Marinos in the Xerox Super Cup last Saturday.
The once-mighty Greens, J. League champions in 1993 and 1994, and runnerup in 1995, have made a couple of excellent winter signings.
Bustling center forward Washington bagged a record 34 goals in 38 Brazilian championship games for Atletico Paranaense last year, and was quick to show his strength and scoring power for Verdy against Marinos last weekend with a Super Cup double.
Kazuyuki Toda, a key midfield player for Philippe Troussier’s Japan but a Zico outcast, should add steel to the Verdy defense or midfield, as he tries to win back his place in the national squad.
Verdy could be a championship dark horse this season.
Albirex Niigata Last season: 1st stage 14th, 2nd stage 7th, overall 10th.
Manager: Yasuharu Sorimachi.
One to watch: Shingo Suzuki, a dynamic player on the left side.
The Albirex fans just can’t get enough of their orange-shirted heroes, and the club’s average home attendance of 37,689 was the highest in the league last season. They remained patient, too, as Albirex took time to adjust from J2 to J1 after winning the second-division championship in 2003.
A much-improved second half of the season, when Albirex finally found the knack of winning at home, suggests 2005 might not be such a struggle, despite losing popular North Korean midfielder An Yong Hak to Nagoya Grampus Eight.
The newcomers include experienced defender Shigenori Hagimura, fellow defender Anderson Lima from Brazil’s Sao Caetano, and a trio from Nagoya: the Kaimoto brothers, midfielder Kojiro and defender Keiji, and right winger Tetsuya Okayama, who scored 54 goals in 278 league appearances for Grampus over 12 seasons.
Sorimachi will be hoping the influx of defenders makes his team harder to beat this time, while, at the other end, second-year Brazilian striker Edmilson will carry the attack. He scored 15 goals in 29 outings last season, supported from midfield by Fabinho, who chipped in with nine.
Vissel Kobe Last season: 1st stage 12th, 2nd stage 8th, overall 11th.
Manager: Hideki Matsunaga.
One to watch: Ryuji Bando, who enjoyed a breakout season last year with 17 goals.
The billions of club president Hiroshi Mikitani breathed new life into Vissel Kobe last season, even though the signing of Turkish striker Ilhan Mansiz proved to be an expensive mistake after the initial publicity factor.
Mikitani, who knows a thing or two about big business, appears to have had his fingers burned on the transfer front, and it’s been a quiet winter in Kobe with a new baseball team to assemble further north.
All three foreign players from last season have stayed, including Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma, but manager Hideki Matsunaga has lost the services of defender Yukio Tsuchiya. Now playing for Kashiwa Reysol, Tsuchiya’s intensity and leadership qualities will be missed throughout the team.
Vissel’s major signing is national squad left back Atsuhiro Miura, who has 10 seasons of J1 experience with Yokohama Flugels, Yokohama F.Marinos and Tokyo Verdy. With Verdy manager Ossie Ardiles preferring Takahito Soma on the left, Miura needed to switch clubs and play regularly to keep his place in Zico’s plans.
With a second Miura on the books, the more famous Kazuyoshi will have just “Kazu” on the back of his No. 11 shirt. Kazu turned 38 on Feb. 26, and his career stats now stand at 134 goals in 285 J1 games.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima Last season: 1st stage 13th, 2nd stage 11th, overall 12th.
Manager: Takeshi Ono.
One to watch: Kota Hattori, an elegant left-sided player tipped for the national squad by his manager.
Takeshi Ono, who was Takeshi Okada’s hand-picked assistant for the national team at the 1998 World Cup in France, is building a tidy team at Hiroshima.
Ono steered Sanfrecce to promotion from J2 in his first season, 2003, and managed to keep the team away from relegation danger last term in a year of consolidation.
Sanfrecce, a combination of Japanese and Italian words meaning “three arrows,”will need to be sharper after winning only six of 30 games and drawing 13 in 2004.
Shohei Ikeda, whose claim to fame is scoring the goal to win the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup final for Shimizu S-Pulse in 2000, should bolster the Sanfrecce defense, alongside new Brazilian recruit Dininho from Sao Caetano.
Central midfielder Kazuyuki Morisaki has been named captain this season, and manager Ono is hoping he will step up and show the authority to reflect his six seasons with the club, even though he is still only 23.
Not surprisingly, considering last season’s lack of goals, two of the club’s 14 new players are Brazilian strikers: Galvao, from Parana Club, and Jorginho, who played eight times for Nagoya last season.
Oita Trinita Last season: 1st stage 10th, 2nd stage 16th, overall 13th.
Manager: Hwangbo Kwan.
One to watch: Yoshiro Abe, a smart signing who will boost attacking options.
Trinita scored only 35 goals in 30 games last season, the second-lowest total after Reysol’s 29, and turned to South Korean coach Hwangbo Kwan to solve the problem.
Hwangbo has his own small place in World Cup folklore after scoring a spectacular equalizer against Spain at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Although South Korea would lose the group game 3-1 to a masterful hat trick from Real Madrid’s Michel Gonzalez, Hwangbo almost broke the net with his rocket shot from some 30 meters out.
If he can teach this skill to his Oita players, the Trinita fans can expect some entertaining action this season.
Athens Olympic team striker Daiki Takamatsu is expected to lead the attack alongside second-season Brazilian Magno Alves, who netted 11 times last year.
Yoshiro Abe, another forward, was snapped up from FC Tokyo, where his chances to play were limited due to a plethora of young attacking talent.
Shimizu S-Pulse Last season: 1st stage 11th, 2nd stage 14th, overall 14th.
Manager: Kenta Hasegawa.
One to watch: Cho Jae Jin, an instant success up front after joining last July.
S-Pulse fans have endured some miserable seasons of mediocrity lately, with their team unable to challenge for the championship but too experienced to go down.
In a bid to add some zest and sparkle into an ageing squad, a former star player has been hired as manager.
Kenta Hasegawa made his name as an honest, hard-working center forward, and he will expect similar qualities from his under-achieving players.
But there is hope, from not too distant shores.
If a club wants value for money, effort and ability from its foreign players, Korea is a vast market to plunder.
Forward Cho Jae Jin set the example last season with seven goals in 12 games following his summer move, and he has been joined by compatriot Choi Tae Uk, a left-sided attacking player who was a member of Korea’s 2002 World Cup squad.
Left-sided defender Takahiro Yamanishi (Jubilo Iwata) and right winger Yukihiko Sato (Yokohama F. Marinos) will increase competition for places.
Cerezo Osaka Last season: 1st stage 16th, 2nd stage 12th, overall 15th.
Manager: Shinji Kobayashi.
One to watch: Tatsuya Furuhashi, a mobile forward who adapted quickly to life in J1 after a summer move from Honda FC in the third-tier Japan Football League.
The team talisman, Yoshito Okubo, has moved on, to Real Mallorca, and left a gap which is impossible to fill, on and off the pitch.
His personality, winning spirit and goals helped keep Cerezo in the top flight last season, and even though his fiery temper and occasional violent conduct got him and the team into trouble, Okubo will be a big miss.
His replacement is the more mature and steady Teruaki Kurobe, a member of Zico’s national squad not so long ago but now completely out of the picture. Kurobe spent five seasons with Kyoto Purple Sanga, three of them in J1, and scored 23 top-flight goals in 62 appearances.
The Brazilian agent who brought striker Washington to Verdy, former goalkeeper Gilmar, is also responsible for Cerezo’s trio of imports: Bruno Quadros (Cruzeiro) at the back, and Fabinho (Corinthians) and Ze Carlos (Corinthians) in midfield.
Another interesting addition is former national team winger Nozomi Hiroyama, who has played in Paraguay, Brazil, Portugal and France since leaving JEF United in 2000.
Kashiwa Reysol Last season: 1st stage 15th, 2nd stage 15th, overall 16th.
Manager: Hiroshi Hayano.
One to watch: Keiji Tamada, a quick and lively forward, and Zico favorite.
Reysol won a two-leg playoff against Avispa Fukuoka from J2 to remain in the top flight, but the squad shows little change from last year.
Experienced defender Yukio Tsuchiya has been signed from Vissel Kobe, and he should provide some leadership at the back. On the import front, Brazilian Cleber has come in on the right side of midfield, and South Korea’s ‘Little Maradona,’ Choi Sung Kuk, has joined from Ulsan Hyundai.
But apart from that, manager Hiroshi Hayano must work with a squad which marked time for a few seasons before moving backward.
Hayano will be hoping that striker Yoshiteru Yamashita can stay fit after an injury-hit debut season with the club last year, and also that playmaker Ricardinho can remain injury-free. Ricardinho joined Reysol from Cruzeiro in August 2002, but has made only 43 league appearances since then and is doubtful for Sunday’s opener at home to Kawasaki Frontale.
There is plenty of young talent at Reysol, such as Mitsuru Nagata and Naoya Kondo at the back, Tatsuya Yazawa in midfield and Kisho Yano and Yuji Unozawa in attack, but Hayano must find the right balance.
Kawasaki Frontale Last season: J2, 1st.
Manager: Takashi Sekizuka.
One to watch: Kazuki Ganaha. Works hard for the team in attack.
Frontale ran away with the J2 championship last season, winning 34 of 44 games and collecting 105 points, 18 clear of Omiya Ardija in second place.
Frontale scored 104 goals in the process, and J1 defenses don’t need telling why.
It was mainly because of the prolific Brazilian striker Juninho, who is similar in style and just as quick as another ex-Frontale front man, Emerson.
The 27-year-old Juninho joined the Kawasaki club from Palmeiras in February 2003 and has been unstoppable since. He led the club scoring chart in both seasons, with 28 goals in 2003 and 37 last year for a total of 65 in just 78 J2 appearances.
Emerson, now with Urawa Reds, took the jump from J2 to J1 in his stride, and there is no reason why Juninho cannot do the same, especially as his sidekick, Marcus, is still around. The pair plundered 55 goals between them last season, and will feed off center forward Kazuki Ganaha, who is a survivor of the last Frontale team to play in the top flight, in 2000.
Shuhei Terada, starting his seventh season with the club, will anchor the defense, whose main job will be to concede fewer goals than Juninho and Marcus can score.
Omiya Ardija Last season: J2, 2nd.
Manager: Toshiya Miura
One to watch: Naoto Sakurai, a skillful dribbler who is hard to dispossess.
There is more to Saitama Prefecture than Urawa Reds, and Omiya Ardija will be trying to prove that this season.
After finishing second in J2 last year, Omiya will be playing in the top flight for the first time in the club’s seven-year J.League lifespan.
Manager Toshiya Miura has set a realistic target of a top-10 finish, and a couple of astute winter signings will play an important part in that ambition.
Naoto Sakurai made a tearful farewell to Verdy last season, as the chance to move to his hometown club was too good to turn down. The former Omiya Higashi High School forward takes bags of experience with him, from Urawa Reds and Verdy.
The second impressive signing is playmaker Chikara Fujimoto, who made his name alongside Tatsuhiko Kubo at Sanfrecce Hiroshima before moving to Nagoya and Kobe.
Of the foreign players, towering Brazilian striker Christian has played in Portugal, France and Turkey, and could prove a handful for defenders when fully match fit after a knee injury.