2020 has been a rough year to endure. The pandemic disrupted everything as we knew it and it’s not over yet. Despite this, J. League somehow overcame certain hurdles and closed the season last week with the two cups’ finals. After such a run, with a hectic schedule to bring home, it’s time for us to rest and look back to what lies beyond us. And many heroes won’t come around in 2021.
We’re not talking just about players who moved abroad, but mostly about legends who featured in J. League for two decades, if not three. Figures who made history, who lived through the thick and thin of the Japanese championship, wearing several different jerseys and leaving good memories for many fans. Some of them probably would deserve another piece, but we picked just one exception (we’ll get there).
It was tough to pick eleven legends – in a “10+1 format” that we plan to use every end of the year in the future –, but we think some memorable mentions are well-deserved for some of the ones who haven’t made the list. And remember we have already written an homage to Kengo Nakamura and his amazing career (suggestion: if you click on every name, you’ll find a video linking to their final goodbye at the stadium):
- Keisuke Iwashita (岩下 敬輔)
24/09/1986, active from 2005 to 2020 | Squads: Shimizu S-Pulse, Gamba Osaka, Avispa Fukuoka, Sagan Tosu
He will mostly be remembered to be a crucial member of the squad which brought Gamba Osaka to winning a treble in 2014, having though featured a lot in J1. A rough center back, he quitted after this season with a Sagan Tosu jersey, playing just twice in J1 and coming in for one minute in the last match of 2020 against Oita Trinita.
- Yoshiaki Fujita (藤田 義明)
12/01/1983, 2005-2020 | JEF United Chiba, Oita Trinita, Júbilo Iwata
Of Taiwanese descent, Fujita has been a regular J. Leaguer between 2000s and 2010s. He started with JEF United, but his career has been mostly tied with Oita Trinita and Júbilo, a team for which he played almost for a decade. He retired after 2020 and a season with a surprising amount of minutes on the pitch, collected mostly under former manager Fernando Jubero.
- Akihiro Sato (佐藤 昭大)
30/08/1986, 2005-2020 | Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Ehime FC, Kashima Antlers, Roasso Kumamoto, Montedio Yamagata
A beloved figure for J2 fans, Sato played just 24 matches in the first tier, but he featured a lot more in the second division. He defended the posts of many clubs, but he has been remembered because of what did on the other side of the pitch, scoring a goal for Roasso Kumamoto in injury time against… Montedio Yamagata, the club which oversaw his retirement. He played 13 games in his last season.
- Kazunori Kan (菅 和範)
11/11/1985, 2008-2020 | FC Gifu, Tochigi SC
Among J2 characters, Kan was probably one of the most recognizable. He played four seasons for FC Gifu just after the club got promoted and then he stayed in Tochigi for nine years, going through a relegation to J3 and the return to the second division. In the last glorious season for Tochigi, the captain featured just once to collect the applauses of his beloved fans.
- Ryosuke Matsuoka (松岡 亮輔)
23/10/1984, 2007-2020 | Vissel Kobe, Júbilo Iwata, Montedio Yamagata, Fujieda MYFC
He has seen a lot, he travelled throughout Japan, playing for clubs from J1 to J3. His last stop was Fujieda, where he featured for MYFC for two seasons. Known for his stamina and relentless fights on the midfield, he retired after 24 matches played in the 2020 J3 League.
After these five mentions, we can go on with the eleven players who made the list.
- Kenta Shimizu (清水 健太)
18/09/1981, 2000-2020 | Kashiwa Reysol, Montedio Yamagata, Kamatamare Sanuki
Retiring alongside another Sanuki symbol (midfielder Ryota Nagata), Shimizu was a silent senator in Japanese football world. Despite his career stretched over three decades, he wore only three jersey in his career. Unfortunately, his first stint wasn’t so lucky, since he stayed with Reysol for five seasons and a half, playing though just nine games in all competitions.
He had to move to Yamagata to find new life, featuring for almost a decade with Montedio. He lived through promotions, relegations and a new goodbye once Norihiro Yamagishi established himself as the starter in 2014. And while Montedio came back to J1, Shimizu moved to Kagawa Prefecture, becoming the no. 1 at Kamatamare Sanuki, where he was the absolute pillar for six more seasons.
- Tatsuya Masushima (増嶋 竜也)
22/04/1985, 2004-2020 | FC Tokyo, Ventforet Kofu, Kyoto Sanga, Kashiwa Reysol, Vegalta Sendai, JEF United Chiba
In all his drifting through the Japanese football map – six different clubs aren’t so few for a professional who found space everywhere he played –, Masushima has conquered something in every team he has been with, but it’s undeniable how his destiny has been tied to the Chiba Prefecture. Born in Chiba, he played for Kashiwa Reysol for six years, immediately taking part to the 2011 title winning campaign under Nelsinho.
Once he won every possible national trophy with Reysol, a terrible injury disrupted his career. He came back and ended his journey in Chiba, this time with JEF United Chiba. Three seasons there didn’t bring any J1 comeback… nevertheless, the fans were happy to have him around and the central back really felt the final salute. 2021 has already revealed a post-career move: he opened his YouTube channel, uploading a series about his family.
- Ri Han-jae (李 漢宰)
27/06/1982, 2001-2020 | Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Consadole Sapporo, FC Gifu, Machida Zelvia
There’s no reason to hide. Despite a long past in Hiroshima (where he even played in a different position, right winger or midfielder), Ri Han-jae’s career is mostly tied to the good times he had in Machida. In 2020, he called his career off after having been seven years with Zelvia, seeing it all, from J3 times to the renaissance of the club, featuring in two amazing campaigns in the second division.
He joined Sanfrecce with graduates like Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Takuto Hayashi, but found his real growth over 30. When he signed for Zelvia from FC Gifu, he became the captain and led the group for several years, even though he featured for just four games in 2020 (never getting a real goodbye from his fans, since the last two matches played for Machida were away from the GION Stadium).
- Kyohei Maeyama (前山 恭平)
10/12/1987, 2010-2020 | Blaublitz Akita
Kengo Nakamura isn’t the only one-club man who retired this year. He might have played just in JFL and J3, but Maeyama represented one of the giants for the league which saw its maiden campaign in 2014. His goals, his partnership with a sort of on pitch-twin (Ken Hisatomi) and his records (169 matches and 30 goals in J3) will stay in our memories. To think he got his first professional contract just in 2016… and yet, he has come so far.
Probably the saddest part about his retirement is that he won’t be able to see J2 football after being one of the senators not only in Akita, but in general for J3. “Mr. Blaublitz” – a man born in Saga Prefecture and who joined the club from Fukuoka University – had to travel all from the other side of the country to write history. And he did it, indeed: he’ll be missed by the fans, who already had chants about him in JFL times.
- Tomoki Ikemoto (池元 友樹)
27/03/1985, 2005-2020 | New Wave/Giravanz Kitakyushu (x3), FC Gifu, Kashiwa Reysol, Yokohama FC, Matsumoto Yamaga
Alongside Hisato Sato, for now, Ikemoto holds a unique record: he’s featuring in the Top 25 all-time scorers both in J2 and J3 (59 goals in the former, 28 in the latter division). He had the chance of showing his skills as a forward for many clubs, but there’s no doubt he’ll pop up in our readers’ minds mostly for his time with Giravanz Kitakyushu, for whom he played for more than a decade in three different stints.
The first came after having made some experience abroad while playing for the young sides of River Plate in Argentina. When he came back to Japan, he chose Kitakyushu, but the team back then was still playing in JFL and didn’t even have the name “Giravanz”. He even had two chances to play in J1, but he came back home, since he was born in Kitakyushu. The proud son of this city ended his career with 16 games and one goal in 2020.
- Ryohei Hayashi (林 陵平)
08/09/1986, 2009-2020 | Tokyo Verdy (x2), Kashiwa Reysol, Montedio Yamagata, Mito HollyHock, Machida Zelvia, Thespakusatsu Gunma
His last season wasn’t probably the best (two goals in 36 matches with Thespakusatsu Gunma), but Hayashi has surely been a wonderful character of the J2 environment. He left with 64 goals scored, more than Hulk. He played for so many teams, but he found his true self by featuring in the second division for clubs like Mito HollyHock or Montedio Yamagata.
Many might not remember this, but he’s also a J1 champion, since he was at Kashiwa Reysol for two and a half years, so he was around when the newly promoted side won it all in 2011. We’ve already discussed in long detail his wonderful story here, when he was still featuring for Tokyo Verdy.
- Yohei Tokunaga (徳永 悠平)
25/09/1983, 2003-2020 | FC Tokyo, V-Varen Nagasaki
Mostly remembered for his FC Tokyo days as a side-back, Tokunaga actually ended his career in the region where he was born, Nagasaki. He joined the capital’s club in 2003 and stayed there for 14 seasons, not leaving even when the team descended into J2. He was part of the backbone which brought FC Tokyo back to J1 and won the Emperor’s Cup, going through nine different managers during his time there.
When he joined V-Varen Nagasaki in 2018, it was a choice driven by the heart. The club was on the verge of playing its maiden J1 campaign and needed some senators in the roster: Tokunaga was perfect and retained his spot on the roster even after going back to J2. He featured in two Olympic Games for Japan and closed the last season in his career with ten games and one goal (against Renofa Yamaguchi).
- Éldis Fernando Damasio or Fernandinho (フェルナンジーニョ)
13/01/1981, 2001-2020 | Gamba Osaka, Shimizu S-Pulse, Kyoto Sanga, Oita Trinita, Vegalta Sendai, Ventforet Kofu, Gainare Tottori (x2)
We can’t deny we had actually picked the former no. 10 of Gainare Tottori for a deep dive in early December, before other news came out. We felt it was right to homage such a player, because J3 is often seen as a possible trampoline for other ventures, especially by foreign players. Can you remember a non-Japanese member of a roster staying in a J3 club for a long time?
If you can’t, it’s because Fernandinho set the bar pretty high. He left Gainare by scoring in the last match of the league season, reaching 39 goals in J3 (he’s the oldest goal scorer in the history of the league). But his love for Japan started when he was 23 years-old, coming from Brazil to play for Gamba Osaka and winning their first J1 title. He then devoted the final part of his career to Gainare and they loved him so much there (deservedly).
- Leandro Montera da Silva or Leandro (レアンドロ)
12/02/1985, 2005-2020 | Omiya Ardija, Montedio Yamagata, Vissel Kobe (x2), Gamba Osaka (x2), Kashiwa Reysol, Tokyo Verdy
This goodbye left us a little bit of sour taste in our mouth. Until 2016, when he was 31 years old and scored 19 goals with Vissel Kobe in J1, Leandro was at the peak of his form, topping the scoring chart and being elected in the Top XI of that year. After that, unfortunately, injuries just derailed his career: especially one to his ligament stopped him and made impossible for him to perform at his best.
The Brazilian striker left his mark in the Kansai region, given his record track with Gamba Osaka, which still looks impressive today: 38 goals in 55 league matches between J1 and J2, but he jumped the ship to Qatar twice after those performances. Who knows how his career would have looked like without those goodbyes? In 2020, he played just once, in the opening match against Tokushima Vortis.
- Hitoshi Sogahata (曽ヶ端 準)
02/08/1979, 1998-2020 | Kashima Antlers
We’re talking about a legend. Probably not a hyped one, because he played for a historical team in J. League, but of which we don’t celebrate enough the contribute to Japanese football. It’s not an accident if he’s the only player of this list who was born in the 1970s, the only one to feature in a J. League match over four decades and the senator who probably represented at best the concept behind Kashima Antlers.
Hitoshi Sogahata would have probably deserved an article all for himself. He’s born and made in Kashima, he bleeds Ibaraki from his veins. The arrival of Kwoun Sun-tae and the sudden explosion of Yuya Oki put him on the bench in the last four seasons, but he has always been there for the club. He won 25 trophies (25!) with Antlers, yet he played just four times for the national team.
The symbol of his resilience came in numbers: he holds a particular record, having played for 244 consecutive games in J1 League. From October 20th, 2007 to December 6th, 2014, Sogahata was there defending Antlers’ goal. He featured just twice in this season, but it was enough. And it seems fitting to see him as the last senator from Kashima to leave the club, since he joined in ’98 with Masashi Motoyama, Koji Nakata and Mitsuo Ogasawara.
To discover the number one, though, you have to click here.