J. Finest Hour – Júbilo Iwata (2002)

In 2020, Kawasaki Frontale left an undeniable mark on the history of Japanese football. Despite a season hit by the COVID-pandemic and the damages that the outbreak is still making 18 months later, the club not only won a title, but the memory and the hearts of neutral fans around the world. Indeed, we asked ourselves: was the 2020 version of Frontale the best a J. League aficionado has ever seen?

In the end… yes, it’s true. Stats-wise, Frontale won 83 points over 34 games (26 wins, 5 draws, 3 losses, with 88 goals scored and 31 allowed). Doing a basic calculation, Toru Oniki and his boys collected an average of 2.44 points per game. And they monopolized the Best XI at the end of the season (nine players out of 11). Therefore, we went deeper: was this the best club ever seen on a Japanese pitch since 1993?

Kawasaki were by far – at least 0.4 PPG – the best team ever witnessed in Japanese professional football. Then the final question: which other teams have done this? Well, we scour the history books to look out for the best teams in all three professional division over the last three decades. If Frontale wrote history, it’s also fair to celebrate whoever did it before them. Game recognizes game.

This is “J. Finest Hour”, the column talking about the teams who ruled Japanese football in terms of the best in one single season. The first episode of this column concerns the beginning of 2000s, when a historical team – now in J2 – ruled the first division thanks to their excellent squad, their international profile in the continent and one of the strongest strikers Japan ever produced.

Today we talk about Júbilo Iwata. Actually, in our research, this is the only team which basically repeated the same performance in back-to-back seasons: in both ’01 and ’02, Iwata collected an average of 2.37 points per game. Nonetheless, we picked the latter, because Iwata won that one, while the year before they lost against Antlers (17 points less than Júbilo in the regular season) and lost all three finals.

Where were they coming from?

Back then, in the ’02 pre-season, the cabinet of Júbilo Iwata was already filled with several titles. Not among the “Original 10” clubs which founded J. League in 1993, Iwata found their way to J1 just one year later. They had players of high caliber, like Brazil’s captain Dunga and Salvatore Schillaci. Furthermore, they had already won two national titles, plus two national cups (one J. League Cup and a Japanese Super Cup).

But there was more, because in the pre-Asian Champions League-era, there was another continental tournament: the Asian Club Championship, where Japan didn’t enjoy too much success. Furukawa Electric FC won the title in 1986, while the year after Yomiuri FC collected the trophy because Al-Hilal withdrew from the final (many of their players were already involved in a training camp with the national team).

But indeed, Júbilo Iwata made history in the final years of that competition. Just before it was rearranged and renamed “AFC Champions League”, Júbilo won the 1999 edition and they played two further finals in 2000 and ’01 (both lost, respectively against Al-Hilal and Suwon Bluewings). But the ’99 success – clinched in front of a crowd of 120,000 people, against Esteghlal – was maybe the peak of their international exposure.

Just imagine winning the trophy in such a hostile environment. Japanese players can crumble under the pressure of tough crowds, but that day, it just didn’t happen.

And the man behind that golden era (and the match-winner of that final) was club legend and sneaky striker Masashi Nakayama. “Gon” was the first no. 9 Japan ever brought to a FIFA World Cup: in fact, Japan’s first goal in the finals was his, against Jamaica. Despite he got called up in 2002 as well, he was already at the peak of his career. Just like his club was living the peak of its history.

Why did they rule?

2002 wasn’t a particular season just because of what happened the year before. Júbilo had one of the strongest performances ever in ’01 as well, but there was a two stages-format back then and Iwata lost the finals against Kashima Antlers. As we said, they lost the Asian Club Championship final and they tumbled at the finish line as well in the J. League Cup, losing the final act against Yokohama F. Marinos.

It was a particular season, though, also for another reason: the schedule. 2002 might be sounding familiar, because it was indeed the year of the FIFA World Cup in Japan. Sure, it was co-hosted with rivaling neighbors South Korea, but this organization required a three months-break due to the event. The league stopped on April 21st and resumed only on August 17th.

It would have been a tough schedule to manage for whoever was in charge. Masakazu Suzuki, who enjoyed a 86,15% win percentage in his first stint with Júbilo – had his doubts. It wasn’t easy to manage a team who wasn’t just losing shape, but also three players – Nakayama, captain Hattori and young bolt Fukunishi were all called by Troussier – and then regain traction once the championship was back.

Luckily for them, a few key-players enjoyed the break and kept their focus once the goal was clear in front of them.

The main heroes

In 2002, two Júbilo defenders won their spot in the Best XI at the end of the season. If Makoto Tanaka wasn’t a surprise – he also experienced a time when he was regularly called for the national team –, it might have been for Hideto Suzuki. He was indeed a regular at Júbilo – he scored the other goal to win that continental final in Tehran in ’99 –, but this was his only inclusion in the Best XI.

The midfield was fire as well. Júbilo had the luck of having two different kinds of player, who were though instrumental to clinch the title. Like mentioned above, Takashi Fukunishi was among the 23 for the World Cup, but he was a classic “mezzala”, capable of scoring goals from time to time and running all over the pitch. On the other hand, Toshiya Fujita granted goals and passes, reminiscing the quality brought by Nanami.

And then, the great reason why Júbilo became champion that year: Naohiro Takahara. He was just coming back from an adventure in Argentina with Boca Juniors, but it took just a couple of games to understand that the numbers shown between ’98 and 2001 were not a joke (32 goals over four years). He just needed to settle back to Japan: Takahara scored 26 goals in 27 games in ’02.

Some numbers

Like we said, Frontale colonized the Best XI in 2020, but Júbilo didn’t go that far: seven players made it to this special eleven in ’02. Besides Suzuki, Tanaka, Fukunishi, Nakayama and Takahara, also Hiroshi Nanami and Toshiya Fujita. Only ’93 Verdy Kawasaki and 2018 Kawasaki Frontale equalled this achievement.

The day of the triumph: Júbilo won 1-0 at home after extra time. A goal by Fukunishi is enough to break Tokyo Verdy’s resistance.

Naohiro Takahara wasn’t just the top scorer of that season, but also the MVP. He bagged 26 goals, but the most impressive data actually comes from the proportion to shots made: in fact, Júbilo’s no. 32 scored 32,9% of his shots (79). It’s massive.

Another number recalls the defeats away from home: zero. Júbilo lost three league matches and five games in all the competitions that year, but all those losses came at home.

What’s even more impressive is that Júbilo were indeed the record-holder for the best-ever average PPG in the top-flight before Kawasaki Frontale in 2020. No one had ever overcome their 2.37 PPG ratio in J1, until Oniki and his boys did the job one year ago.

Where are they now?

That season represented the last championship ever won by Iwata. After ’03 – when they came as runners-up –, their best finish was in ’04 and ’06, both fifth. Then the downfall was there: they got relegated twice and they’re trying to come back. Fun fact: the current head coach is Masakazu Suzuki, who is enjoying a new life in his old club.

Among others, there are few who need to be mentioned:

  • Hiroshi Nanami » Nanami is now at Matsumoto Yamaga, but he indelibly linked his name to Júbilo. He wore that shirt for 13 seasons and he’s been the coach behind the best season of Iwata in the last 15 years.
  • Go Oiwa » Oiwa played just two years with Iwata, but incredibly those seasons were the best of the club’s history. Ironically, Kashima Antlers signed him in ’03 and then Oiwa became their head coach, losing though the title race in 2017 at the last match… in Shizuoka.
  • Ryoichi Maeda » 157 goals in J1 League, now retired after two years at FC Gifu, Maeda started from Júbilo Iwata. He actually played in that magical season, after scoring twice in ’01 in the Japanese championship. His pitch time was limited because of Nakayama and Takahara,

This was the first episode of “J. Finest Hour”. We’re gonna go through with another episode in two weeks, but for now you can just enjoy this first trip to Memory Lane. Stay tuned for other contents and the J. League in general: it’s gonna be a fun ride until the end of the year.

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