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J. League teams gearing up for early season start

by Andrew McKirdy

With the J. League preparing for its earliest-ever opening to a season, teams around the league are busy putting in the work ahead of the Feb. 23 kickoff.

Cerezo Osaka will only have had a 40-day break by the time they contest the annual curtain-raising Fuji Xerox Super Cup with J. League champions Kawasaki Frontale at Saitama Stadium on Feb. 10, having won the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day. But with the World Cup in Russia this summer taking a sizeable chunk out of the domestic calendar, teams have had little option but to begin their warm-weather training camps earlier than usual.

Frontale, who pickpocketed Kashima Antlers on the final day of last season to claim their first-ever championship, are currently in Okinawa. The club has made some eye-catching moves in the transfer market so far, bringing back striker Yoshito Okubo from FC Tokyo and signing Yokohama F. Marinos livewire Manabu Saito.

“Up until now, you’ve known me as a rival,” Saito, who is still recovering from a serious knee injury that ended his season prematurely last year, told the crowd at Frontale’s season-opening event last month. “I never thought I would be standing here wearing this uniform. The club made me an offer even though I was still recovering from an injury. It was a very difficult decision for me but in the end I decided to fight for the Frontale shirt.”

But Frontale are not the only club to have strengthened over the offseason. Antlers, who would have clinched their record ninth league title last season with a win in either of their last two games — only to draw both — have repatriated fullback Atsuto Uchida after 7½ years in Germany. Uchida, who has 74 caps for Japan, has appeared in only three games since 2015 following a terrible run of injuries, but the 29-year-old claimed his first assist since returning to Kashima in a practice match against Tokushima Vortis in Miyazaki on Jan. 27.

“Toshi burst into the box in a good place,” Uchida said of midfielder Toshiya Tanaka, who finished off his cross from the right to score the equalizer in a 1-1 draw. “In Japan, there aren’t so many players making runs into the box, but if they keep making runs for me like that, I think we can produce a lot of goals.”

Cerezo will also be hoping to score goals of their own after winning both the Emperor’s Cup and League Cup last season, as well as finishing third in the league. Striker Kenyu Sugimoto made a big contribution to the club’s success with 22 league goals, and the 25-year-old is hoping to play his part again after missing the Emperor’s Cup final win over Marinos through injury.

“I haven’t played for a while so I want to get my feel for the game back and for my body to get back into the swing of things,” he said on Monday in Miyazaki, a day before he was scheduled to make his return to the pitch in a practice match against a team from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya. “Even though this is just a practice game, it’s a big game for me.”

With just over a week to go before his team faces Frontale in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup, it’s easy to see why.

Hirayama hangs up boots

Sota Hirayama may have been unable to live up to the hype generated by his selection for Japan’s 2004 Olympic squad while still a student at Tsukuba University, but it was still a shock to see him announce his retirement last week at the age of 32.

Hirayama, who started his pro career with Dutch side Heracles Almelo before spending more than a decade at FC Tokyo, called it a day after suffering a relapse of a serious injury that kept him out of the whole of last season.

Hirayama, who joined Vegalta Sendai from Tokyo ahead of the 2017 season, scored 33 goals in 169 J. League matches and three in four appearances for the full national team.

“I was at FC Tokyo for 11 years and that feels like my home,” said Hirayama, who scored a hat trick for Japan in a 2011 Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen. “The celebrations, the happiness, the frustration, the sadness — I have lots of different memories. I was able to meet so many people and I will treasure that.

“In 2010, we were relegated to J2 but all through the despair the fans stayed with us, and even to this day I will remember their words. I believe FC Tokyo will keep getting bigger and stronger.”