HIRATSUKA, Kanagawa Pref. — Nagoya Grampus finally claimed their first-ever J. League title with a 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare on Saturday as Kashima Antlers’ challenge fizzled out with a scoreless draw at Vissel Kobe.
Grampus, one of the league’s original 10 members, needed to beat already-relegated Shonan and hope that Kashima could not do the same against Vissel, and a tense opening 45 minutes at Hiratsuka Stadium suggested the burden was weighing heavily on Dragan Stojkovic’s side.
But a 66th-minute Keiji Tamada header eventually broke the deadlock with Antlers struggling to keep pace in Kobe, and Stojkovic could not contain his delight as the final whistle confirmed the success that had eluded him throughout his long association with the club.
“There are a lot of emotions,” he said. “I’ve been at this club almost 10 years, seven as a player and three as a manger, and I’m very proud to have written a new page in Nagoya Grampus’ history.
“I am really happy to have delivered this kind of sweet cake to the supporters and the city of Nagoya. It is really exciting to be in this situation, to give something to the people. This is an unforgettable moment and this is history.”
Nagoya has led the league ever since beating Urawa Reds on Aug. 14, and now has an insurmountable 10-point lead over Kashima and Gamba Osaka with three games of the season remaining.
“When we climbed into first in the middle of August I knew it was a good chance for us,” Stojkovic said. “I had the feeling then that we would be champions. I thought we would do it, and we did.”
Grampus looked anything but championship material as Shonan pounced on the visitors’ nervy first half, however, with Yoshiro Abe twice going close and Shota Kobayashi heading wide in the opening 45 minutes.
“Football is about combining excellent players with excellent tactics, and Grampus have done that this season,” said Bellmare manager Yasuharu Sorimachi. “Today they handled the dangerous moments very well.”
Tamada split the tension when he headed substitute Keita Sugimoto’s pinpoint cross home after the break, and although Bellmare made sure Grampus could not rest on their laurels, news of Kashima’s failure to score sparked wild celebrations when both results were confirmed.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Nagoya striker Josh Kennedy. “I didn’t expect it to happen today. I thought Kashima would win, so it’s a bit strange.
“This year we have won a lot of games that we lost last year, and although we have had a few hiccups, we haven’t lost many — if any — games in a row. From the start of this season, with the new players that we signed, we set ourselves the goal of winning the championship. We never hid the fact that we wanted to win the championship.”
One new player crucial to that success was defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, who Stojkovic lured from Urawa Reds over the offseason. Injury meant the Japan international was forced to watch Saturday’s game from the sidelines, but the manager believes he has been just as important off the field as on it.
“I knew last year that we needed one player like Tulio to be champion, and it seems that I was right,” Stojkovic said. “His contribution has been fantastic, not only for the results, but for the atmosphere in the dressing room and the courage of the other players. Even today he was in the dressing room. It was very important to bring him in.”
Issues have yet to be resolved at the other end of the table, however, with Vissel pulling within one point of FC Tokyo in the fight to avoid joining Bellmare and Kyoto Sanga in the third and final relegation spot. Fourth-from-bottom Tokyo lost 2-1 at home to Kawasaki Frontale, while in the day’s late game, Omiya Ardija beat Kyoto Sanga 2-0.