KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Not many people expected to see Kashiwa Reysol leading the J. League with May drawing to a close, but club captain Hideaki Kitajima sees no reason why the bubble should burst any time soon.
After winning the second division title at a canter last season, Kashiwa has taken to life in the top flight after only one year away with breathtaking ease. The Chiba side has won five of its seven games heading into Saturday’s home clash with Vissel Kobe, notching 13 goals along the way and conceding just four.
Spearheading the challenge is a familiar face. Kitajima made his Reysol debut as a striker in 1997, leaving for Shimizu S-Pulse in 2003 only to return three years later to continue his love affair with the club that regards him as its spiritual leader.
With four goals to his name already this season, the 33-year-old is enjoying an Indian summer that shows no signs of fading.
“We’re in a very good situation at the moment, and we’ve been able to take a lot of points from the games we’ve played so far,” Kitajima said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “We’ve been able to carry on from where we left off last season. Everyone understands what the manager wants and everyone has the same image in their minds of what we have to do to win.
“For me personally, my shirt number is nine, and my target for the season is to score nine goals. I’ve been able to play regularly and I’m in good shape because of that.”
After only seven games, Kashiwa’s points tally of 16 is only one short of half the 34 it managed over the entire course of its last season in the first division. The 2009 campaign started badly after the offseason transfer of power from manager Nobuhiro Ishizaki to assistant Shinichiro Takahashi, leaving Nelsinho with too much to do when he was parachuted in to replace Takahashi in July.
But with a clearout necessitated by relegation and a year away from the first-division spotlight, the Brazilian’s philosophy soon began to take root.
“He’s a very tactical manager,” Kitajima said of Nelsinho. “We can see his quality in training, and because of that the players know that if we trust him he will bring us success. Nelsinho has had a big impact here and also on me personally. It’s difficult to pick one person over all the others who I’ve played under, but he’s taken us from the very bottom right to the top.”
Kashiwa has, however, visited such rarified heights before. No team accumulated as many points over the 2000 season as the Reysol side led by Akira Nishino, but having failed to win either the opening or closing stage in the days before the J. League had adopted the single-league format, the achievement counted for nothing.
“We had the chance to become champions right there for the taking, and I can still remember the pain and the tears to this day,” Kitajima said. “Now there is not such a big difference between our starting lineup and the squad players. Rather than the first team having improved, now we have more strength in depth.”
Considering the stellar names that have played at Reysol over the years, it is little wonder that today’s scaled down version places more emphasis on the team. But while Hitachi Stadium is unlikely to see the likes of Hristo Stoichkov or Careca again, their impact on the younger generation lives on.
“Stoichkov had a very strong mentality,” said Kitajima, who played with the Bulgarian striker in 1998 and ’99. “He never slacked off from any ball or any challenge, and that was a good example for me. But the player who really left a big impression was the South Korean defender Hong Myung Bo. Of course he was a great player, but in terms of leading as a captain he was really top class.”
With such a close bond with the club, Kitajima is a natural successor for the captain’s armband.
“Reysol have suffered relegation twice, but both times the club has come back,” he said. “With myself also, whether good or bad things happen I can find the power to come back and use that energy. I think there are some similarities between me and the club. This is my home and my family. It’s very important to me.”
Kitajima’s career has never quite matched the promise it showed when he made three appearances for the national team in 2000, but a first-ever championship for Reysol would more than compensate. The odds are still stacked against it, but after winning the J2 title last season, Kitajima is ruling nothing out.
“We know how to win a championship,” he said. “We’ve carried that on from last year. We go into every game focusing only on winning that game, and if you can do that then it all adds up in the end. That’s what everyone here is working toward.”