One-hit wonders. A light in a strange career, which wasn’t made of sparks and constant success. A sudden corner of attention in an otherwise normal trajectory. There are seasons or years like these ones, with players capable of rising to the occasion when it’s needed the most. Just think of sudden protagonists, who made the front cover for a certain period of time, without repeating themselves after that season.
“Lost Treasures” is a column featuring four episodes, all talking about this kind of players in the history of J. League. To pick who to feature in this column, we looked at all the Best XIs composed by the J. League committee at the end of every season and chose four players who actually made an enormous leap, just to rarely or not repeat themselves in the successive seasons.
Another specific detail: we picked just J. Leaguers, who enjoyed most of their career in the Japanese championship, albeit there will two exceptions. The second protagonist of the series never left Japan, but he played just once for the national team, winning though the 2000 AFC Asian Cup. He featured just 113 times in J1 League, probably one of the lowest amounts to end up in the Best XI.
The second player for this column is Daijiro Takakuwa.
Suddenly on the big stage
In hindsight, it’s incredible to review his career, because Takakuwa arrived suddenly to the main sight of Japanese football fans. He played his first league game just in 1998, despite the keeper has been in J. League since the beginning. He wasn’t even on the bench for the first game ever in May 1993, but he was indeed part of the roster of Yokohama Marinos, the squad who kept him on the books for five seasons.
Coming out straight out of college (he attended Nihon University Senior High School), he signed for Marinos in 1992, even before J. League started. Unfortunately, there was no space for him in goal, since he had to fight for the starting spot first against Shigetatsu Matsunaga – legend of the club and senator of the national team – and then against a promising youngster like Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Indeed, there was also another element: he was nicknamed “Goalkeeper of Glass” because of the string of injuries he suffered. He was never in the conditions of challenging neither Matsunaga nor Kawaguchi, even though it would have been a tough feat to bring home. That’s why Takakuwa accepted to go on loan in 1996 to Kashima Antlers, making the move permanent from the successive season.
Antlers were a powerhouse as well, but maybe Takakuwa was hoping to find more space in Ibaraki rather than in Yokohama. Instead, Kashima had their own keepers: Masaaki Furukawa featured in the first four years-ever as the starter, until Yohei Sato took over mid-season in ’95. They had the goalkeeping job for one of the strongest teams in Japanese football history until then.
Injuries are a key-element in Takakuwa’s history, because what they took away from him was crucial for his growth. But injuries will return the favor in ’98, when Sato is unavailable and back then-manager João Carlos opts to field him. Four other head coaches will then switch on Antlers’ bench, but no one changed that decision. Takakuwa had finally found his starting spot, the one he was fighting for since the beginning of his career.
And the best season of his career had yet to come.
The gatekeeper of the first Treble
Being selected as a goalkeeper in the Best XI is way more democratic than everyone might thought. If you take out Seigo Narazaki (who has been selected six times) and Shusaku Nishikawa (five), other keepers haven’t overcome the two terms-selection. Historical figures like Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Yoichi Doi and Hitoshi Sogahata have been selected just once. Just like Daijiro Takakuwa, although his career was way less covered in glory.
The 2000 season was crucial for Antlers, since they came from a dreadful year in ’99: ninth in the table, with three different managers on the bench and Zico – the legend of Ibaraki – forced to take the interim job of head coach in August, since the stint under Zé Mário didn’t bring the expected results. Antlers won the Super Cup of ’99, but the rest of the year was pretty bad for their standards.
This changed with the hiring of Toninho Cerezo, who was going to stay for six seasons. The former Roma and Sampdoria player had just one brief stint in ’99 as a manager at Vitória, but his lack of experience didn’t prevent him to guide Antlers to a rare exception in history: Kashima are the only club – alongisde Gamba in 2014 – to have completed a domestic treble in Japanese football history (they’re also the only club to have won J. League three time in a row).
There’s indeed something magical in the Ibaraki mentality, as we’d like to call it. And that state of mind must have been good also for Takakuwa, who was the starting keeper in almost every match: he played all the games in the championship, just the final of Emperor’s Cup and he left the glory in J. League Cup to a young Hitoshi Sogahata (who featured in both semifinals and the final of that year).
It’s incredible how there were way more senators than you can think about in Antlers’ history, but the keeper was actually among the few who made history. 2000 was just a once in a lifetime-year for Takakuwa: not only he excelled with his club, but he was also picked for the Japanese national team to play in Lebanon the AFC Asian Cup. He even debuted against Qatar, in the last match of the group stage: it will remain the only cap with JNT.
In the Best XI, Takakuwa ended up being selected with just one more teammate, central defender and Japanese national team member Yutaka Akita. Despite achieving something never seen, just two players from Antlers made it. And the keeper will indeed face a different career from that season forward.
Drifting around J. League
It might seem natural to say, but Takakuwa’s career has never reached again the heights he touched wearing an Antlers jersey. Like we said before, injuries played their part again in the destiny of the keeper: just like Yohei Sato lost his spot due to an injury, basically the same happened to Takakuwa.
In the season after winning everything, Hitoshi Sogahata – born and raised in Ibaraki, a true symbol of the Antlers’ mentality still as we’re writing – was picked by Toninho Cerezo to be the no. 1 keeper. For seventeen seasons, Sogahata has been the undisputed starter in goal for Kashima, before Kwoun Sun-tae took over.
And while Sogahata even played with the national team – being selected once for the Best XI and for the 2002 FIFA World Cup squad –, Takakuwa opted to go somewhere else almost immediately. He found new space both with Tokyo Verdy (on loan) and Vegalta Sendai, but both teams were struggling to stay relevant.
The problem was also about the fight to get the starter spot: Takakuwa was the designated no. 1 at Tokyo Verdy after the retirement of club legend Shinkichi Kikuchi, but he faced some struggles in performances and lost his spot to Yoshinari Takagi. The former Antlers keeper changed again team – this time moving to Vegalta Sendai –, but even there he had to fight for some pitch time.
Kiyomitsu Kobari was his direct rival, having the best of him at least in the first tier. Luckily, in J2 League, everything changed: someone with Takakuwa’s experience was a key-asset to try to go back to J1 and indeed he collected a lot of pitch time to defend its club. But it’s funny how destiny tries every time to chase you.
You remember Yoshinari Takagi, right? The man who took over Takakuwa’s starting spot at Verdy mid-2002? Well, he was still there in 2006, when they faced twice during the J2 season. In the second leg, Takagi scored from his own goal and Takakuwa had the misfortune of being on the other side. Vegalta couldn’t accept it and back then-manager Joel Santana gave the spot back to Kobari.
Luckily that wasn’t the last game of his career. Takakuwa closed it between a return to Marinos for two years – where he was the third keeper behind Enomoto and Akimoto, playing twice in ’07 – and one season with Tokushima Vortis, where he featured in one Emperor’s Cup game. He retired at the end of ’09, opting to take a job at Marinos, where he became a goalkeeping coach.
Thanks to his work, Takakuwa has also been a part of the technical stuff of JFA, taking care of the U-16/U-15. He was also included in the staff who is set to feature in the upcoming 2020 AFC U-16 Championship, but you can’t avoid wondering how his career would have developed without injuries. Would the duo Narazaki-Kawaguchi have been challenged? Would Sogahata have faced a different career in Ibaraki? We’ll never know.
Like someone said once: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question”. That’s what drives us in life and probably what helped Takakuwa in his career, trying to find his spot in the league. He’ll remain in history, no matter what.