The stage is set for the AFC Champions League final following the Kashima Antlers’ wild 6-5 aggregate win over the Suwon Bluewings in the two-legged semifinals, which concluded on Wednesday night at Suwon World Cup Stadium.
Kashima spent 102 of the series’ 180 minutes in a losing position on aggregate or tiebreakers. In both games it came down to late goals — first Atsuto Uchida’s heroic effort in the 93rd minute of the first leg, then Serginho’s priceless goal in the 82nd minute of the second leg.
Now after eight J. League titles, six J. League Cups, five Emperor’s Cups, six Super Cups, two Suruga Bank Championships, and the 2003 A3 Champions Cup, Kashima can complete its trophy cabinet with the continental title that has eluded the J. League co-founder for 20 years.
Kashima’s advancement to the final, where it will play Iranian giants Persepolis, will make it the first Japan-Iran climax since 2007, when the Urawa Reds became the first Japanese club to win the competition by defeating Sepahan.
It will also have a potentially outsized effect on Japan’s soccer calendar as the J. League and Japan Football Association scramble to give the country’s last representative in Asia a chance to achieve international glory.
With the second leg of the ACL finals set for Nov. 10 in Tehran, Kashima’s previously scheduled first-division match at Kashiwa Reysol will be bumped up to Nov. 6. That result could affect the relegation dogfight with Reysol in 17th place at 33 points, tied with Sagan Tosu but trailing slightly on goal difference.
Calendar (and giant) killers
The biggest impact of Kashima’s ACL run could be on the Emperor’s Cup, which played three of its four quarterfinal matches on Wednesday. Urawa Reds were rarely troubled in a 2-0 win over Sagan Tosu, while Vegalta Sendai needed penalty kicks to escape Jubilo Iwata.
The most surprising result of the night came from ND Soft Stadium, where second-division Montedio Yamagata held on for a 3-2 win over current J1 leaders Kawasaki Frontale. The “giant killing,” as upsets are known in the Japanese soccer world, ensured that Frontale will not be able to secure a domestic double this season and set up Montedio with a chance to repeat its runner-up appearance in 2014.
But there is still one quarterfinal left to be played, between Kashima and second-tier side Ventforet Kofu on Nov. 21. Should Antlers win that game — and should they have already triumphed in the ACL — the Emperor’s Cup semifinals would be shifted up to Dec. 5 from Dec. 16.
And if Kashima were to beat hated rivals Urawa Reds, managed by former Antlers boss Oswaldo Oliveira, the Saitama Stadium final — which has already been moved from its traditional New Year’s Day scheduling to Dec. 24 to accommodate Japan’s Asian Cup preparations — would be moved up further to Dec. 9 in order to let Antlers focus fully on the UAE-hosted FIFA Club World Cup.
These shifting dates risk not only inconveniencing supporters who must scramble to rearrange their travel plans: they will also make it more difficult to promote the tournament, which aside from the final and semifinals has struggled to draw fans. Media would also have a busy weekend with the J1 Participation Playoff final already scheduled for Dec. 8.
It’s the latest example of the difficulties Japanese soccer faces as it attempts to encourage clubs to succeed internationally while navigating the tricky mine field of a crowded competition schedule.
An expensive Iniesta effect
Vissel Kobe’s attendance has steadily increased since the 2010 season, rising from a per-match average of 12,824 that year to 18,272 in 2017. The midsummer arrival of Andres Iniesta has inspired a string of sellouts, lifting this year’s average to 21,106 with two home games remaining in the campaign.
That’s good enough to raise Vissel from 10th to sixth in average attendance amongst 18 J1 clubs. But with much of the club’s attendance in past seasons coming from ticket giveaways according to the Kobe Shimbun, Vissel ranked worst in 2017 in average gate revenue per attendee at just ¥1,655 ($14.78) — less than half that of league leaders Urawa Reds, who pull in over ¥4,000 from each fan who goes through the Saitama gates.
This week the club announced across-the-board hikes to season ticket prices from next year in an effort to double ticketing revenue from last year’s ¥514 million (nearly $4.6 million). Fans wishing to sit in the front row of the main stand will have to pony up ¥170,000 ($1,517), while supporters behind the goal will pay ¥37,000 ($330).
Vissel has also added a new ¥50,000 ($446) “Gold” tier to the team’s fan club, offering privileges such as a replica uniform, exclusive access to public training sessions, and the ability to beat the public and purchase tickets to any match at any time.
However these price points perform in 2019, they will become a road map for other clubs facing frequent sellouts — such as current J1 leaders Kawasaki Frontale — and show what does and doesn’t work when it comes to monetizing J. League fan bases.
A cracker of a final
Last but certainly not least, Saturday looms large over Kanagawa Prefecture as Yokohama F. Marinos and Shonan Bellmare prepare to contest the 2018 Levain Cup Final. The tournament’s first-ever Kanagawa Derby final will offer a historic result either way, with F. Marinos looking to lift the Cup for the first time since 2001 and Bellmare hoping to win it for the first time in club history.
That history was not lost on Bellmare manager Cho Kwi-jea, who has guided the team to three trips up to the top flight since 2012.
“I remember the time when I would look at the Levain Cup and never imagine that we could go to the final,” Cho said after the team’s thrilling penalty kick win over Kashiwa Reysol on Oct. 14. “We focused all of our energy on the matches in front of us, and over the years our wins and losses built up to create something.
“Without all of the players and staff who have belonged to the club, and the fans who cheer until their throats crack, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
For Marinos boss Ange Postecoglou, it will be a chance to solidify his stature after a debut league campaign of ups and downs at Nissan Stadium.
“Our goal is to win the title, and I’m excited to have that opportunity in my first year in Japan,” the former Socceroos head coach said after beating Kashima in the second semifinal. “The club hasn’t won a title since (the Emperor’s Cup) in 2013, and I came here to turn this into a championship-winning side.
“We’ve scored home and away, gone up against strong sides, and put in good performances, and I think we deserve to be in the final.”