J. Finest Hour – Sanfrecce Hiroshima (2008)

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 second episode of this column concerns the end of the 2000s, when one from the “Original 10” – who took part in 1993 inaugural J. League season – faced the drop to J2. The point is their promotion back to J1 built the fundaments for the Moriyasu’s dynasty and three national titles between 2012 and 2015.  

A 5-2 home win against Shonan Bellmare.

Today’s protagonists are Sanfrecce Hiroshima and their 2008 version, who collected an average PPG of 2.38, smashing their way back to J1 and winning the J2 title with six games still to play (six!). It was a memorable year, the third season under Mihailo Petrović, but probably the first when their pool of talent started to develop in the right direction for the future.

Where were they coming from?

Despite featuring in the maiden season of J. League, 15 years hadn’t been enough to collect some silverware in Hiroshima. In fact, Sanfrecce came second in their second season-ever – winning back then the First Stage and then losing the Suntory Championship with a 2-0 aggregate defeat against Verdy Kawasaki –, but mostly lost four Emperor’s Cup finals (1995, ’96, ’99 and 2007).

Until then, only two players ever featured in a J. League Best Eleven: Takuya Takagi in ’94 and Hisato Sato in 2005. Kazuyuki Morisaki won Rookie of the Year in 2000… and that was pretty much it. A lot of former and current J. League managers wore that jersey: Yahiro Kazama, Hajime Moriyasu, Tomohiro Katanosaka, Jan Jönsson… but no trophies in their cabinet.

After several changes in the dugout – with different foreign coaches being named at the helm of the team: from Scotland, Netherlands, Russia –, they seemed to have found a little stability under Takeshi Ono. The relationship stopped mid-’06, when Sanfrecce had a terrible run and Mihailo Petrović – who came from three mediocre years coaching Sturm Graz, lingering with relegation twice – jumped the ship and took the job.

The group started following some rollercoaster-like performances. They recovered their mojo in ’06 – coming tenth –, but the whole ’07 season was difficult: while Sanfrecce thrived in the national cups (final in the Emperor’s Cup, quarterfinals in the J. League Cup), the championship saw them tumbling, entering the relegation zone only in the final third of the season (they didn’t win any of their last 10 games).

Back then, relegation/promotion playoffs were in place: Sanfrecce came sixteenth and faced Kyoto Sanga and lost 2-1 on aggregate. That meant the end for them, but they didn’t know it was just the beginning of a new (and more triumphant) era.

Why did they rule?

Forget how you know J2 today: it was radically different in 2008. Back then, the league was still developing, and it featured 13 teams. Two more were joining that year – FC Gifu and Roasso Kumamoto – for their first pro-experience ever. Alongside Sanfrecce, also Yokohama FC and Ventforet Kofu faced the drop. But Hiroshima started to attract some attention already in the pre-season.

They lost their fourth Emperor’s Cup final the year before, but Kashima Antlers won both the championship and the cup, so Petrović and his players got a free ticket to the 2008 Japanese Super Cup. And they took advantage of that: after going down 2-0, they came back in the last 10 minutes of the game and Antlers yield in front of Sanfrecce after penalties. Finally, there was a trophy in their cabinet.

This probably was a nice boost of moral for a really long season: playing 42 games with just 15 teams in your division is different from doing the same, but rotating 22 clubs facing each other. Meanwhile, Sanfrecce lost both Yuichi Komano and Ueslei, but there wasn’t any problem Petrović: he already decided that he would have rebuilt the club around the immense pool of youngsters Hiroshima had back on the day.

The main heroes

Of course, with all these youngsters, you need someone to lead them. And which better example of Hisato Sato? Back then, he was just 26, but he had already eight professional seasons under his belt and three years playing for Sanfrecce: all of them saw Sato hitting the double-digits mark in terms of goals. Why shouldn’t have repeated those performances in J2, where he already scored a lot of goals with Vegalta Sendai a few years back?

Another leader of that team was center-back Ilyan Stoyanov: signed mid-season the year before from JEF United Chiba, the Bulgarian has been one of the few European players to make it to the Best Eleven in J1 (in ’05). He was 31 and he had int’l experience to lead the young teammates around him. In fact, he’ll be a leading example in that season, becoming a sort of sensei for a young team.

We were talking about youngsters and it’s impressive to read the list of future J. Leaguers that Sanfrecce Hiroshima featured that season. We want just to underline some names who made the difference in that year:

  • Tomoaki Makino
  • Ryota Moriwaki
  • Toshihiro Aoyama
  • Yojiro Takahagi
  • Yosuke Kashiwagi

Among them, we have five players who all played for Japan (67 caps combined) and one of them even won the MVP Award in 2015.

One of the least celebrated ones, we’d add.

Some numbers

I’ve got 99 goals, but we’re missing one”: we could paraphrase Jay-Z to describe that season. Sanfrecce took the lead of the table and never let it go. Their offensive production was remarkable: they had 11 games with 3+ goals scored, even winning 7-1 against FC Gifu at home in early September.

It wasn’t just Hisato Sato scoring goals that season: 3 players went on to bag double digits of goals. And the other two were not forwards. But if we could have expected that a young offensive midfielder like Yojiro Takahagi could have done it, the real surprise was Koji Morisaki: they both scored 14 goals each.

The 7 & 8 numbers will always be an institution in Hiroshima. In fact, no one wears them because they bring a heavy legacy with themselves. The Morisaki twins – Koji and Kazuyuki – had been already senators back then, but that ’08 season probably gave them the first of many satisfactions wearing a Sanfrecce jersey. Both born and bred in Hiroshima, Koji started one year later and retired before Kazuyuki, but they nonetheless made history.

It seemed curious now, but there was a team that looked like kryptonite that season for Sanfrecce: Ventforet Kofu. In two games against them, Hiroshima collected 0 points, losing both games and scored just one goal. Despite this, Kofu trailed 41 points from Sanfrecce at the end of that year: bizarre.

Where are they now?

So after that season? The return to J1 proved to be a triumph: with other signings, Sanfrecce Hiroshima actually booked immediately an ACL spot for the first time in their history, after coming fourth on the table. It was just the beginning of a development process, which brought to the hiring of Hajime Moriyasu in 2012 and… three national titles, three more Japanese Super Cups and a third place in the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup.

The peak of the Moriyasu era.

Strangely, though, Sanfrecce haven’t still won neither an Emperor’s Cup nor a J. League Cup: under Moriyasu, they reached the final in both, but didn’t make it. Meanwhile, Mihailo Petrović is still in Japan and became the first foreign head coach to collect 200 wins in J. League. But what about other protagonists from that ’08 season?

  • Despite veteran Koichi Kidera started the year between the posts, ’08 was a breakthrough season for Akihiro Sato. The young keeper took the no. 1 spot and it seemed the beginning of a brilliant career. That career ended last year, but Sato managed to find a starting spot again only in J2… although he even found a way to score a goal!
  • Stjepan Jukić played just 11 games before going back to his home country. Luckily for Hiroshima, they learned their lesson and the next Croatian to be a part of their team will write pages of history for the club. In December ’08, among the first signings for their return to J1, Sanfrecce signed Mihael Mikić… and the rest is history.
  • Despite his international experience and pedigree, Kazuyuki Toda – former member of the national team, famously during the ’02 World Cup – wasn’t able to find some time on the pitch in that season. He featured just for seven minutes in one game in ’08. After retiring in 2013, he’s now become one of the most famous and respected football analysts in Japan and an university head coach.

This was the second episode of “J. Finest Hour”. We’re gonna go through with another episode in two weeks, but for now you can just enjoy another 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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