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An unprecedented season ended in a historic night for Kashiwa Reysol striker Michael Olunga, whose J. League-leading 28 goals saw him named Most Valuable Player during Tuesday’s J. League Awards.

The Kenya international became the league’s first African MVP and the eighth player to claim that award as well as the Golden Boot in the same season. Olunga’s tally, which accounted for nearly half of Reysol’s 60 goals this season, was the highest in the league since the 33 Araujo scored for Gamba Osaka in 2005.

Joining Olunga in the Best XI were Kashima Antlers’ Brazilian striker Everaldo — who scored the J1’s second-highest tally of 18 goals — as well as nine players from league champion Kawasaki Frontale, adding another line to the list of records shattered by manager Toru Oniki’s men this season.

Olunga, 26, credited Reysol for sticking with him after a slow start following his August 2018 arrival. Following the club’s relegation that season, he notched 27 goals in 2019 to help Reysol clinch the second division under returning manager Nelsinho Baptista and swiftly return to the top flight.

“(Relegation) was really frustrating and depressing. But I knew I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, because the people of Kashiwa trusted me with the responsibility and I decided to fight for the team,” Olunga said. “I’ve tried to acclimate with the weather, I’ve tried to get to know the Japanese way of playing and I’ve been able to form a good relationship with the teammates. I believe a combination of these factors has led to my success, both in the J2 and J1.”

League MVP Michael Olunga poses with league chairman Mitsuru Murai during Tuesday's ceremony. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE
League MVP Michael Olunga poses with league chairman Mitsuru Murai during Tuesday’s ceremony. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE

The Nairobi native praised Nelsinho, whose first stint with Kashiwa from 2009 to 2014 resulted in some of the club’s greatest successes, including the 2011 J1 title and the following year’s Emperor’s Cup crown.

“He’s a demanding coach in terms of results. He always wants victory, whether it’s a friendly, a league game, a cup game. And victory doesn’t come without hard work,” Olunga said. “The best thing he implemented is the hard-working mentality in the players.

“For him, trusting me to lead the line to get the goals, I feel responsible to try to repay his faith and the only way I can do that is by scoring a lot of goals so the team can do better.”

Olunga said he hoped to continue to be a positive influence in both Japan and Kenya, adding that he hoped other African players would join him in “the best league in Asia.”

“Coming here to compete with the best Japanese players, it’s really impressive because you see the hard work in the players. They have good mobility, they have good positioning, they are very hard working,” Olunga said.

“A player like me coming with speed and strength leads to the growth of Japanese players. They’ll learn to tackle a striker like me, and that’s something they can use at the later stage of their career, or if they leave Japan and go to a much harder and tougher league.”

Kawasaki’s contribution to the Best XI consisted of goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong; defenders Jesiel, Shogo Taniguchi, Kyohei Noborizato and Miki Yamane; and midfielders Akihiro Ienaga, Ao Tanaka, Kaoru Mitoma and Hidemasa Morita.

The 23-year-old Mitoma, who scored 13 goals and led with 12 assists in his rookie season, received the most Best XI votes from his fellow players and coaches with 238 — narrowly edging out Olunga’s 225.

Frontale midfielder Kaoru Mitoma poses with the first-division schale and title sponsor trophy. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE
Frontale midfielder Kaoru Mitoma poses with the first-division schale and title sponsor trophy. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE

“It’s an honor to be selected with so many good players nominated. I’m grateful to everyone who voted for me,” Mitoma said. “I wasn’t aiming for MVP … but of course I would have been happy if I was selected. I think Olunga deserved the award.

“I knew if I didn’t succeed with the chances I was given I wouldn’t play, that’s how high the level of competition was in the team.”

Even with the five-substitute rule giving Oniki more opportunity to distribute playing time within his squad, Frontale captain Taniguchi emphasized that it wasn’t a cakewalk for any of Frontale’s players, including the 13 who were nominated for the Best XI.

“There was tough competition within the team to get into the XI every game. The players who started worked to get results, and the players who came on as subs did their best to get a chance to start in the next game,” Taniguchi said. “It’s not simple to get nine players in the XI, and I think it serves as recognition from other teams about the kind of soccer we play. “

Tuesday marked the second Best XI appearance for Jung, Taniguchi and 2018 MVP Ienaga, with the other eight players making their debut on the list.

Frontale midfielder Kaoru Mitoma (left), defender Shogo Taniguchi (right) and Reysol striker Michael Olunga pose for photos following Tuesday's J. League Awards. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE
Frontale midfielder Kaoru Mitoma (left), defender Shogo Taniguchi (right) and Reysol striker Michael Olunga pose for photos following Tuesday’s J. League Awards. | COURTESY OF THE J. LEAGUE

Cerezo Osaka defender Ayumu Seko was named the league’s Best Young Player, while Vissel Kobe midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi received the Individual Fair Play Award.

Goal of the Year went to Shonan Bellmare midfielder Mitsuki Saito, who is set to join Russia’s Rubin Kazan on loan, for his long-distance lob against Kobe on Nov. 15.

J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai bestowed special awards to 11 medical experts for their participation in the joint NPB-J. League coronavirus task force.

The award ceremony, which has traditionally taken place with fans in attendance at Yokohama Arena or other large venues in the Tokyo area, was recorded ahead of Tuesday night’s broadcast with a limited number of participants to reduce the risk of infection.

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