For the Japanese soccer community, Urawa Reds’ 3-0 aggregate defeat to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in the Asian Champions League final was unprecedented.

That’s because it was only the first time in five appearances in the final that a Japanese club has failed to clinch the continental title.

Japan underwhelmed in the first four years of the ACL’s modern format, when none of its representatives from the J. League escaped the group stage.

That changed in 2007 when both Urawa and Kawasaki Frontale reached the quarterfinals. Frontale fell in penalties to Iran’s Sepahan, whom Urawa eventually met in the final and defeated to become Japan’s first ACL champion.

Since then, Japanese clubs have won the tournament three times: Gamba Osaka breezed past Adelaide United in 2008, Urawa Reds outlasted Al Hilal in 2017 and Kashima Antlers defeated Persepolis in 2018.

That J. League clubs have enjoyed such success in the last 12 years allowed Japanese soccer officials to put Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Saitama Stadium, which followed a 1-0 loss in Riyadh earlier this month, in context.

“It’s true that 10 years ago it cost money to participate in the ACL and some clubs weren’t interested in progressing,” Japan Football Association chairman Kozo Tashima told reporters. “But in these 10 years, clubs that have participated and gone on to participate in (the Club World Cup) have grown to understand the importance of the tournament.

“We’ve reached the final five times and won four times, proving our strength and raising our profile in Asia. Clubs are starting to understand that it’s not only the national teams but also club teams that can compete globally.”

Whereas in 2007 just two Japanese clubs were invited to the ACL, for the last decade four have participated annually, whether directly from the group stage or through the playoff round.

But the J. League has also changed in that period of time. No longer do Japan’s top internationals play for local clubs beyond their early 20s, instead opting for bigger and better opportunities in Europe.

So too has Japan’s ability to draw foreign players changed. Whereas previously the J. League was considered a prime destination for second-tier foreign talent who could dominate local pitches, now such players are more likely to be snapped up by Chinese or Gulf clubs with deep pockets and grand ambitions.

The difference in quality between Al Hilal’s slate of international stars — Italian attacker Sebiastian Giovinco, former FC Tokyo captain and ex-South Korea defender Jang Hyun-soo, former France international Bafetimbi Gomis and Peruvian star Andre Carrillo — and Urawa’s comparatively anonymous Brazilian trio of Ewerton, Fabricio and benchwarmer Mauricio could not have been clearer, both to those watching from the press box and the players on the pitch.

“We couldn’t stop Carrillo,” said Reds striker Shinzo Koroki. “Even with two defenders he’d tear us up. (Al Hilal’s) ability was incredible overall and they had high-quality foreign players.”

Defender Tomoaki Makino agreed: “They were better than us physically and technically. We’ve played several teams in this ACL but we haven’t been beaten like that.”

Al Hilal’s victory, which represented West Asia’s first title since 2011 and the club’s first continental conquest since the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship (against another J. League opponent in Jubilo Iwata), was yet another reminder that is not just in East Asia where the quality of soccer has advanced significantly in recent years, noted J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai.

“Simply reaching this final took a number of very close results. In that sense, it shows that Japanese clubs, including Urawa and Kashima, are playing at a high standard,” Murai said.

“On the other hand, the level of play in other Asian regions is steadily improving, and if we stop for a moment we’ll fall behind.

“We definitely sense that danger. We Japanese clubs want to keep aiming to win Asia, and there’s still ways in which we can improve.”

In a year already crowded with the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s four representatives in the 2020 ACL will set out to not only avenge Urawa, but prove that Japan has not lost its competitive edge in Asia.

“As a league we hoped and prepared for a third straight ACL victory, but we saw how we were insufficient,” Murai said. “Now we have to restart from zero.”

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