Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

J. League bids farewell to era-defining group of legends

by Dan Orlowitz

There are few praises which have not already been sung for Yokohama F. Marinos defender Yuji Nakazawa and Nagoya Grampus goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, both of whom announced their retirement on Tuesday.

They join Kashima Antlers midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara, SC Sagamihara goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, and Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Kazuyuki Morisaki as players who called it a career after the 2018 season.

The five combined for a delightfully-precise 2,600 J. League first-division appearances on top of several hundred more domestic and international cup fixtures. Ogasawara led the pack with seven Best XI selections, followed by Narazaki and Nakazawa with six each (those three each have a league MVP award in their distinguished resumes) and Kawaguchi with one.

While Kawaguchi roamed the lower divisions in the twilight of his career, the others were practically one-club men: Ogasawara’s 21 seasons in Kashima were interrupted by a one-year stint with Italy’s Messina, Morisaki spent 20 years with Sanfrecce, Narazaki served 20 in Nagoya following four years at Yokohama Flugels (which was absorbed by Marinos after 1998), and Nakazawa followed four years at Verdy Kawasaki/Tokyo Verdy with 17 at Marinos.

All, save for Morisaki, represented Japan at the senior international level — Kawaguchi is tied for third-most in the Samurai Blue with 116 caps, while Nakazawa’s 110 caps were surpassed for sixth-best by Yuto Nagatomo on Wednesday night.

While a generational shift is absolutely in full swing, it’s perhaps early to mourn the departure of so many emblematic veterans as the end of an era. In fact, seven members of Japan’s 2006 World Cup squad are still attached to J. League clubs, while four others are either in the amateur ranks or seeking new professional homes.

But in a league in which one-year contracts continue to be the norm even for stars and young talents are increasingly drawn to careers abroad, the breed of player dedicated enough to spend two decades at a single club is surely becoming an endangered species.

Longer offseason just as busy

Even with the extra three weeks provided by the rescheduling of the 2018 Emperor’s Cup final to accommodate both the Asian Cup and Kashima Antlers’ Club World Cup participation, the J. League’s offseason feels as though it will pass by in an instant.

As the Samurai Blue prepared to open their group stage campaign against Turkmenistan on Wednesday, J. League clubs were already waking up from their holiday slumber and getting into gear for the coming domestic season.

The biggest movers and shakers so far have arguably been the front office staff at Vissel Kobe, who have engineered several transfers intended to solidify a roster which now features three former World Cup winners in Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski and incoming striker David Villa.

The Rakuten-owned club’s signings of star midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi from Cerezo Osaka and steady fullback Daigo Nishi from Kashima Antlers are statements of intent: Vissel chairman Hiroshi Mikitani does not expect a rebuilding year following Kobe’s disappointing 10th-place finish in the 2018 first division.

Vissel will further its ambitions of becoming the world’s most well-known Japanese club later this month when it travels to Orange County, California, for what is being billed as the first-ever U.S. tour by a J. League club. The two-week camp will include friendlies against Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, Los Angeles FC and Toronto FC, as well as U.S. second-division side Orange County SC.

It will perhaps be the first time a J. League club has visited the U.S. mainland since November 1995, when Vissel lost 3-2 to the Seattle Sounders. Other teams have visited Hawaii for international tournaments — Gamba Osaka won the 2008 Pan-Pacific Championship, while Consadole Sapporo claimed last year’s Pacific Rim Cup.

Closer to home, Sanfrecce and Consadole will journey to Thailand this month for friendlies against Chonburi FC and Bangkok United, respectively. The two Japanese sides have high profiles in the Southeast Asian nation thanks to the impressive performances of Sapporo’s Best XI selection, midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, and now-former Sanfrecce striker Teerasil Dangda, who like ex-Vissel fullback Theerathon Bunmathan will be returning to the Thai League following the end of his loan.

Whether those two will be replaced by more Thais in the J1 is yet to be seen, with second-division outfit Tokushima Vortis’ signing of half-French winger Chakkit Laptrakul the only inbound Southeast Asian player thus far. But with new rules in place which allow J1 clubs to sign an unlimited number of foreign players (and include five in their matchday squads), the offseason has already seen a number of tantalizing foreign signings.

Two-time champion Kawasaki Frontale made its biggest acquisition in recent memory in the form of ex-Brazil international Leandro Damio, the top scorer of the 2012 London Olympics.

Other countries rarely represented in the J. League will get their time in the spotlight. Mozambique defender Simao Mate will look to shore up Vegalta Sendai’s back line, while Hiroshima will become the first overseas home of former Sweden right back Emil Salomonsson.

Over the course of January, clubs will hold their respective shintaisei happyokai, formally unveiling new managers, players, and even uniforms. Fans can begin planning their early-season travel on Jan. 11, when the league’s home openers will be revealed ahead of the full schedule announcement on Jan 23.

By then most clubs will have settled into their Kyushu-area winter camps and it will only be a hop, skip and jump away to the Feb. 16 Fuji Xerox Super Cup between Kawasaki and Urawa Reds, the Feb. 19 ACL qualifying playoff round featuring Hiroshima and Kashima, and the J1’s season opener on Friday, Feb. 22.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5