It would have taken a brave person to tip Kashiwa Reysol for the 2011 J. League title before the season had begun. But as the newly crowned champions prepare to take on Auckland City in the Club World Cup on Thursday, it would take an even braver person to deny they deserved it.
Kashiwa captured its first-ever championship with a nerveless 3-1 victory over Urawa Reds last Saturday, pulling off the extraordinary feat of winning the second- and first-division titles in successive seasons. The Chiba side began the campaign as many people’s dark horse to make an impact after a year away from the top flight, but what we got instead was a thoroughbred that charged out the gate and never let up until it had crossed the finish line ahead of the rest.
Reysol served notice of their intent with a 3-0 thrashing of Shimizu S-Pulse on the first day of the season, and went on to drop only five points from their opening nine fixtures. That strong start was soon proven to be founded on genuine quality rather than simple promotion momentum, but to make it stick until the end of the campaign must go down as one of the most remarkable achievements in J. League history.
Kashiwa’s strength was its organization, with attack and defense working in perfect synch and the team slipping effortlessly between playing styles as the ebb and flow of each game dictated. No team in the country looked as well-drilled as Reysol, and manager Nelsinho deserves enormous credit for the work he has done since taking over midseason in 2009.
The Brazilian’s appointment came too late to arrest the club’s slide toward the second division that year, but with the less-demanding environment of J2 providing ideal conditions for his methods to take root, Kashiwa’s relegation turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
Nelsinho rebuilt a team that had been overly reliant on the gifted but ponderous Franca, shifting the emphasis to a more dynamic style and bringing in playmaker Leandro Domingues to run the midfield. The success this season of Leandro — named J. League Player of the Year on Monday — and fellow Brazilian Jorge Wagner proved how important it is to choose one’s foreign players wisely, and their effort was backed up by a similarly outstanding contribution from their teammates.
Forward Junya Tanaka, who chipped in with 13 goals, and force-of-nature right back Hiroki Sakai both caught the eye, but it was the unflashy, cast-iron reliability of players like defender Naoya Kondo, captain Hidekazu Otani and spiritual leader Hideaki Kitajima who laid the foundations. Kitajima’s tears at Saitama Stadium showed just how much it meant to a player who almost took the club to the title in 2000, and in recent weeks there has been a quiet determination about Reysol that this opportunity would not go to waste.
With this season’s championship also bringing qualification for the Club World Cup, Kashiwa’s story is not finished yet. Nelsinho has experience of the tournament in its previous Toyota Cup incarnation, losing to Borussia Dortmund as manager of Cruzeiro in 1997, and the lack of a pause in action means Kashiwa goes into Thursday’s match against the Oceania representatives still bubbling with title-winning intensity.
The prospect of meeting Santos in a semifinal and Barcelona in the final is surely not one that anyone at the club seriously entertained at the start of the year, but with success comes belief and Reysol now know that anything is possible.
Other teams at the Club World Cup may underestimate the surprise J. League champions, but they will do so at their peril.