After a quarter of century, J. League has established itself as one of the most known leagues over the world, certainly the best in Asia, which might be capable to reach also audiences from all over the world in the future. This rise, though, happened thanks to a lot of factors and one of them has been the presence of foreign players. Many of them came, some of them left a solid mark, few of them opted to stay after their Japanese experience.
Their coming to Japan raises the same old question: marquee players or true icons? Just a way to pump attendances up or memories that stay with fans forever? This is why this column is here. We wanted to homage the footballing movements who shaped the history of Japanese football and the J. League.
We picked six nations and we’re featuring someone for every episode to help us understanding why that particular player represents so clearly the contribute that country gave to Japan. The third episode will bring us to the Eastern part of the world: Australia has featured more than 30 players in J. League, but no one left a more solid memory than Joshua Kennedy.
An Aussie in Germany
To retell his story in the Japanese championship, we summoned a well-known voice in the J. League-sphere. Ryan Steele is a diehard-fan of Urawa Red Diamonds (and you can find him on Twitter by the name of @Steelinho), but most of all he witnessed the period when Kennedy lived his golden times in Japan. He helped us understanding his profile as an Australian player in a broader way than we could:
“Josh Kennedy – affectionately known by Australian fans as ‘Jesus’ for his once-iconic long hair and beard – was part of the Australian national team for eight years and scored nearly a goal every two games for his country, making him at the time one of the most prolific strikers for the Socceroos”.
Born in 1982, Kennedy is among the graduates from the Australian Institute of Sport program, which have also gifted players like Vince Grella and Mark Bresciano – both played in the Italian Serie A for a long time – to their football movement. Kennedy’s trajectory, instead, brought him to Europe, but to a different country: despite having played just four games in the former National Soccer League, he moved to Germany.
In fact, VfL Wolfsburg opted to sign the young striker from Carlton SC in 2000. The club wasn’t splashing the market like it then used to do in the successive seasons, so Kennedy played for a mid-table team – they indeed close ninth in 2000-01 and tenth in the successive year –, but most of all featured just nine times. He became the youngest player ever to appear for VfL in September 2000, while scoring twice the next season.
While he was featuring (and scoring) a lot in their reserve teams, Kennedy understood he wasn’t going anywhere at Wolfsburg. He played for Stuttgarter Kickers and 1. FC Köln, but even there nothing happened. The decisive move of his career was going to Dresden, where Dynamo needed a striker after getting promoted to the 2. Bundesliga. The two parts matched perfectly and Kennedy scored 16 goals in two seasons.
Despite Dynamo Dresden then got relegated at the end of the 2005-06 season, Kennedy boosted his profile on the German football market. Indeed, he landed a sweet move to 1. FC Nürnberg, where he won the DFB Pokal and even got a sweet taste of European football, playing three times in the UEFA Cup… but he didn’t play so much and got severely injured at the beginning of his first season.
He even switched to Karlsruher SC in the middle of 2007-08 season, in order to get more pitch time. And even if that move initially worked – Kennedy scored four goals in his first five appearances, clinching the “Player of the Month” award in February ’08 –, then it crashed due to a lack of scoring and the club getting relegated in 2008-09. It felt it was time to leave Germany, given how the player clashed with the coach.
It felt right to change country, also because these bad performances could have hindered Kennedy’s chances with Australia. The national team started to rely on him since Guus Hiddink called him up to be part of the 2006 FIFA World Cup roster, despite the striker never played before with the national team. Kennedy proved his value in those games and Ryan remembers the best moment of Kennedy’s history with Socceroos:
“His greatest moment in the green and gold for Australia was in 2013, where his winning goal against Iraq sealed qualification to the 2014 World Cup. That sealed his place in history amongst the Australian public and he is fondly remembered for his impact off the bench, despite unfortunate injuries often keeping him out of major tournaments”.
To get there, though, Kennedy needed a better gig than the ones experienced in Germany. And that’s where a call came from the other side of the world.
The prince of the (Nagoya) Castle
Up that point, Kennedy’s career could have been labeled as the one of a “journeyman”. The transfer to Nagoya Grampus – finalized in June 2009, just a few weeks after Bundesliga ended – pushed his trajectory to another timeline. Grampus weren’t near the top as they would have loved to, but Stojković’s team was indeed having a good run both in the AFC Champions League and they would have then played the Emperor’s Cup final (losing it).
The Serbian manager needed more firepower alongside Yoshizumi Ogawa and Keiji Tamada, since Davi – the Brazilian striker, who scored until then 10 goals in 17 matches of J1 – left mid-season to move to Umm-Salal: that’s why they signed the Australian striker. Kennedy played his first match on July 18th, starting with a bang: he scored immediately, just like in the next two matches against Urawa Red Diamonds and Oita Trinita.
Kennedy scored six goals in 15 J1 games, but that amount raises to double digits if you consider all competitions. Grampus finally found what they needed to give themselves a chance in a run for the title: a true striker (meanwhile, Davi won’t find too much fortune outside of Japan). And with that spirit, Nagoya will start two magical campaigns, both good enough to chase their first title ever.
2010 was a key-year for Grampus’ history. They finally had all the pieces in their place: a solid defensive line – Narazaki won the MVP award, Tulio was again inducted in the Best XI –, engines in the middle, talented players ahead and a special season by some of those players – Masahiro Nasukawa and Danílson Córdoba made their only appearance in that special formation.
Last but not least, Joshua Kennedy helped lifting some weights over Tulio’s shoulders in terms of goals and offensive production. He facilitated the runs of Tamada and Ogawa, his physicality helped dealing with Japanese defenders in a different J. League, less structured than now on the tactical side. Most of all, some of his 17 goals – away at Gamba and Vegalta, at home against Cerezo – were crucial to seal some key-wins.
After all these efforts, Nagoya won the title with several games still to play. It felt natural to reward that squad and Kennedy both won the top scorer’s title – tied with Jubilo Iwata’s Ryoichi Maeda – and gained a spot in the Best XI. Ryan helps us reminding what that moment meant both for his career and his place in history for Grampus:
“Josh Kennedy’s first golden boot in Japan was a significant moment, making waves in both Japan and Australia and made people truly take note of his ability and impact for Nagoya”.
The thing that probably struck the most in Japanese passionate football fans is that Joshua Kennedy didn’t resemble the image of a super-star. His career is Germany was made of some highs and many lows; at the moment of his arrival, his relationship with the national team wasn’t so developed, since many of the senators were still around for a last run at both the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
History showed how that run wasn’t so good, even when Kennedy tried to fit in. He was called up for the 2010 World Cup, but head coach Pim Verbeek preferred first Tim Cahill and then Harry Kewell in the center-forward position. Both got ejected against Germany and Ghana, so Kennedy got his starting time only against Serbia, where he featured as a no. 9 and Socceroos won 2-1, despite exiting the tournament. But in Nagoya everything was different.
Stojković heavily relied on the Australian striker and this didn’t change at all for all the length of his tenure in Nagoya. After the 2010 season, 2011 saw Grampus winning the Japanese Super Cup and having another shot at the title; this time, they came up short to Kashiwa Reysol, ending their retaining title-run one point shy of first place (despite a run of six wins in a row in the last six games of the season).
Kennedy even improved his numbers, scoring 19 goals and confirming his spot in the Best XI: he was among the four Grampus players to make it to that special line-up. His contribution decreased a little in the next three years – 22 goals in 56 J1 games, with the peak in 2013 –, just as Nagoya were falling in the table throughout those three seasons (seventh, eleventh and tenth).
Dragan Stojković left on December 2013 and it’s not a case that Kennedy followed soon after; he stayed for a year under new manager Akira Nishino, even scoring five goals in 11 matches. Despite that, he then left and went back to Australia. You could also say that Kennedy represented one of the key-members under the Serbian manager. They found each other to define each other’s history in Japanese football. Ryan again:
“Up to that point, even while leading the top scorers list for a large part of the season, he had flown relatively under the radar for not being a “flashy” striker like many would expect from foreigners in the league”.
We don’t have a heat-map, but you could easily prove that many of his goals came into the penalty box. He was particularly good at taking penalties (18 scored out of 19 taken) and had a particular way of playing. Maybe it was old-fashioned, but he proved to be crucial for Nagoya’s successes in those years. Actually, the striker paid homage to J. League, claiming that featuring in the Japanese championship helped him developing more technical skills.
The legacy beyond Australia
Joshua Kennedy might not be the best Australian player ever or even in the last two decades. There have been better talented-players and, even in his World Cup appearances, he didn’t leave the mark he was hoping for. And if we look at the six months of his career beyond Nagoya, even there – in A-League, with Melbourne City FC – he scored just twice in 12 games and then retired.
Injuries haven’t certainly made his life easier: those episodes took him away a lot of games, of chances to shine. Just think about 2007 and 2011 AFC Asian Cup, where he wasn’t called because he had to sit out due to injuries. We don’t know how much space he would then have, since Tim Cahill was still around, but he would have been a useful weapon also in those occasions.
Even when – like Ryan mentioned – it was his time to take the stage and basically brought Australia to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he didn’t enjoy the final reward. The back problems which kept him out from 2011 AFC Asian Cup presented themselves again and pushed Kennedy out of the final roster in June. A final disappointment in a career that though brought many satisfactions in Japan, like Ryan reminded us:
“His introduction to Dragan Stojkovic’s Nagoya Grampus was significant for the league in paving the way for similar target men to join the league, with more clubs seeking a player that can both push a defensive line and pose an aerial threat that few Japanese strikers are able to provide”.
As today, Joshua Kennedy is the only Australian player to have made the Best XI. A strange phenomenon, since Australia joined AFC in 2005 and many players have been to Japan: Mitchell Langerak, Thomas Deng and Pierce Waring are confirmed to feature in the 2020 season, but who knows if they’ll be able to match the result achieved by the striker, who indeed left an undeniable mark in J. League.
Kennedy left Japan with a goal per game/ratio of one goal every 182 minutes. Basically, one every two games, since he scored 73 goals in 155 matches with Nagoya. We rarely witnessed something like this in J. League and the Australian striker himself hadn’t touched those heights never before nor later (the closest number in his career are the ones with the reserve teams in Germany).
It was a magical matchup, defining an era not only for Japanese football, but also for Grampus – who are still without trophies since that 2011 season – and Kennedy himself. Among foreigners who made the Best XI twice, only three players joined that club: Emerson Sheik, Dragan Stojković and the Australian. Therefore, his contribution to Japanese football won’t be ever forgotten. Thank you, Josh.