KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Last year may have been a dream come true for Kashiwa Reysol, but forward Junya Tanaka is determined to prevent 2012 from turning into a nightmare.
Having pulled off the most unlikely title win in J. League history last season hot on the heels of promotion from the second division, Kashiwa currently finds itself in a position hardly befitting of a champion. Five defeats in 11 league matches have left the Chiba side hovering above the relegation zone ahead of Saturday’s game against Albirex Niigata, with leaders Vegalta Sendai fast disappearing over the horizon 13 points away.
Amid the gloom, however, a spark is beginning to flicker. Progress to the knockout round of the Asian Champions League was achieved with a 2-0 win over South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors last week, before Cerezo Osaka were dispatched 2-1 last Saturday to give Reysol their first back-to-back league victories of the season.
Scoring the winner was Tanaka, a 13-goal hero last season who helped Kashiwa turn miraculous comebacks into something of a routine occurrence. Having fallen behind against Cerezo on Saturday, the 24-year-old was happy to rekindle that spirit.
“It’s a matter of confidence,” Tanaka said at Reysol’s training ground earlier this week. “We are beginning to remember how we played last year. Against Cerezo we went a goal behind, and this year when that has happened we haven’t really been able to recover. Last year we came from behind to win seven times, and against Cerezo we felt that ability coming back to us.
“We’ve made a mess of the start of the season. We’re 15th in the table but we have won three games in a row, and that gives us confidence. I believe we can keep climbing the table.”
Having experienced the full spectrum of relegation, promotion and championship glory in just 2½ years at the club, Tanaka knows things do not always go as planned. The forward was unable to save Reysol from the drop when he made his debut in 2009 while still studying at Juntendo University, but successive second- and first-division titles in his first two years as a professional marked an epic turnaround.
“I probably had more experience crammed into those two years than any other player,” he said. “I experienced relegation while I was still a university student, and during the last two or three years I have experienced a lot of emotions and a lot of ups and downs.
“The manager always says it, but it’s very important to keep aiming higher. You might be feeling low, but you have to do your best not to show that on the pitch. The last two years were a great learning experience.”
The end result was a first-ever league title that no one saw coming. Reysol dropped only five points from their opening nine games to claim top spot early in the season, then held their nerve over the summer before clinching the silverware on the final day ahead of Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka.
“At the start we were just giving it all we had, and then by the middle of the season we were still on top of the league,” Tanaka said. “From then on I started to set my sights on the title. There was a time during the summer when the lead changed hands, but all throughout I was focused on the title.
“At the end we were neck-and-neck with Nagoya and Gamba, so when it was all over I felt a real sense of relief. The sense of achievement at seeing it through to the finish was huge.”
Winning the title brought qualification for last December’s Club World Cup, but also personal recognition for Tanaka. The forward received his first national team callup for a World Cup qualifier against North Korea last September, before making his debut as a halftime substitute in February’s friendly win over Iceland.
“I had never been called up at any age level before, so for me it was something new,” he said. “I wanted to see what the people involved were like and what kind of level they played at. To see that for myself was like stepping into a new world. Each player is of a very high level, and they all have a very strong mental approach to the game. Technically, they don’t make many mistakes.”
Given Tanaka’s progress, however, it is tempting to wonder where he might be now had he begun his professional career earlier. A university education is practically unheard of for aspiring players in Europe, but Tanaka believes the system has much to offer.
“For players like me who don’t have the skill or physical ability to turn pro after finishing high school, four years at university allows you to develop,” he said. “If you make good use of that time, you can go on to become a pro.
“On the other hand, the number of players who fall by the wayside is not small. It really depends on each person. For me, I qualified as a PE teacher and became a pro player, so I would say the system works.”