KURIHIRA, Kanagawa Pref. — For Kawasaki Frontale goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, Saturday will either mark the greatest day of his club career or the latest in a long line of painful failures.
Frontale have the chance to win their first-ever silverware when the J. League title goes on the line, but they will have to do it the hard way. Kawasaki trails Kashima Antlers by two points going into the final day, and a win for Kashima away to Urawa Reds would clinch a record third consecutive championship for the Ibaraki side.
Such a scenario would be a bitter pill for the 26-year-old Kawashima to swallow. This was supposed to be the year when the league’s most stylish team broke its title hoodoo, but a quarterfinal exit from the Asian Champions League and defeat in last month’s Nabisco Cup final have steadily whittled down the options.
A surprise loss to last-place Oita Trinita two weeks ago suggested the league crown had also slipped out of reach, but all is not yet lost. If Kawasaki beats Kashiwa Reysol away from home on Saturday, Antlers would surrender their title with anything less than a win.
While Frontale face a team which finally succumbed to relegation last weekend, Kashima must travel to a wounded Urawa side in no mood to let one of its fiercest rivals parade the title in its own backyard.
“I know there is pressure on Antlers in the same way there was pressure on us going into the game against Oita because the outcome of the whole season depends on it,” Kawashima said at Frontale’s training ground earlier this week. “But Kashima won the league last season and the season before, so they are used to handling the pressure. Kashima is good at dealing with that kind of situation.
“We lost against Oita which was careless, so we’re not thinking about whether our next opponent’s motivation is high or low but only about our own ambitions. All we are doing is concentrating on the game and getting ourselves ready for it. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Frontale’s 1-0 loss to Oita reinforced their image as serial chokers, but Kawashima insists his team’s failure to make the breakthrough has become a source of inspiration rather than a millstone around its neck.
“Losing against Oita was a shock, to be honest,” he said. “It meant that we had to chase for the title when we could have been leading, and it hit us hard. But we also knew that the league wasn’t over and that we still had a chance to win it. We couldn’t waste time sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.
“Our aim was to win a title this season but then we went out of the Asian Champions League and lost in the final of the Nabisco Cup. But that has given us more strength. Rather than adding to the pressure, it has made us hungrier.
“Maybe in situations where we had to avoid losing we have come up short, but our unity and team spirit is something that other teams don’t have.”
Regardless of whether Frontale can break their title duck, this season has been a personal success for the goalkeeper. Taking advantage of injuries to regular No. 1 Seigo Narazaki, Kawashima has seized the national team jersey to put his name firmly in manager Takeshi Okada’s plans for next year’s World Cup.
“This year I’ve been able to play for the national team and I’ve been able to keep a few clean sheets,” he said. “If you don’t get the chance to play, then there’s no way you can get the experience. I’ve been able to get a few games under my belt and that’s been a big plus for me, and I’ve also been able to see how the team plays and how I can contribute.
“Playing against top teams like the Netherlands was a big test to see what I am capable of, and even though I let in three goals in that game the experience was vital.”
Kawashima’s performances have been good enough to suggest he could supplant Narazaki despite the Nagoya Grampus man’s recent return to fitness.
“That’s something for the manager to decide,” Kawashima said. “But I’m confident and I think I can play my part if I’m asked to.”
His status, however, has not always been so assured. With Narazaki out of action at the start of the year, Okada had to decide between Kawashima and Urawa’s Ryota Tsuzuki for February’s crucial World Cup home qualifier against Australia. In the end, Tsuzuki got the nod.
“To be honest, that was really hard to take,” Kawashima said. “It affected me a lot and left me feeling really down. But that experience will stay with me, and it was valuable in that I could use it to spur myself on.
“If you want to grow up you have to overcome difficulties, and I went on to play a lot of games after that. So when I look back on that time I can see now that it was an important experience, but at the time it did me a lot of damage.”
That sense of perspective is a quality which has made Kawashima a near certainty for the J. League team of the season, and allowed him to regain his composure after letting a routine save from Takuji Yonemoto slip through his fingers in the Nabisco Cup final loss to FC Tokyo.
“Of course I’m only human and I make mistakes, but you have to find it in yourself to move on and focus on not making mistakes in the next game,” he said. “There will be times when you’re not playing well, and times when you make a mistake that loses your team the game. People might criticize, but it’s important that you criticize yourself as well to avoid it happening again.
“The Nabisco Cup final was an important game and I was aware of my mistake, but it was my responsibility to just get over it. Even if you make a mistake that costs you the game, you can’t go back and change things so there’s no point dwelling on it. You can’t let it affect you.”