J. Finest Hour – Kawasaki Frontale (2004)

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 third episode is like a looking at the mirror: can Kawasaki Frontale beat themselves? Yes, because they recorded the second-best PPG-ever in 2004: a magical season when they stormed through J2 like a bullet and gathered an astonishing 2.39 PPG.

After a 4-0 home win against Yokohama FC, Frontale won that title with five games to go.

It was a year of revenges, of growth. Probably the foundation on which Frontale began their second part of their history, the one before the current era of successes and triumphs.

Where were they coming from?

Born in 1955 as the “Fujitsu Soccer Club”, Kawasaki Frontale had to wait a lot to gain some spotlight. In an area where Yomiuri / Verdy Kawasaki were dominating, there wasn’t any space for them. In fact, they played top-flight football in 1977 and they came back to the Japanese first division only in 2000, 23 years and a change of denomination later (they switched their name to “Frontale” in 1997 and adopted Grêmio’s colors.

Meanwhile, J. League was born and had already seven years under their belt. Unfortunately, Kawasaki Frontale in 2000 weren’t remotely strong as they look now or even as they would have looked only five years later. They changed three different managers, but they earned their current one: still a 26 years-old midfielder, Toru Oniki joined Frontale permanently after being loaned there already in ’98.

Incredibly, Frontale almost won something: they reached the J. League Cup final, only to lose it against Kashima Antlers. The 2000 season was a disaster: to put in perspective, Frontale’s top scorer that year was midfielder Akira Konno, who bagged… three goals. After that season, the whole club changed: they didn’t just change the manager, but also the general advisor, the president and some players left Frontale.

What a long way from there.

This clean slate gave Kawasaki a serious rebuilding opportunity. Brazilian footballers began to impact Frontale’s run through 2000s and the choice for the dugout was decent. A young Nobuhiro Ishizaki – the guy’s a legend, how come is he in every feel-good story in Japanese football? – guided the club from mid-‘01 to 2003, coming short of one point to get back to J1 in ’03. But that was just the beginning.

Why did they rule?

Like we said, in ’03 Frontale were really close to returning to J1. They scored 88 goals, with newly signed forward Juninho bagging 28 of those (Augusto added 17 and Kazuki Ganaha 13). Young guns were growing into the squad and the manager was capable. Logic would have suggested to keep everything like it was and give it another try, but… Ishizaki opted to gamble and take a bench in J1 at S-Pulse (he’ll last only 15 games).

Instead, Frontale hired Takashi Sekizuka, who had been already the caretaker at Kashima Antlers for two occasions in 1998 and ’99. The defensive football of Ishizaki was taken down a notch, keeping a more realistic and offensive approach. And not just that: on the transfer market, Frontale added both Brazilian top scorer from ’03, Marcus (who joined from Albirex Niigata) and Naoki Soma, a former national team member from Antlers (who knew Sekizuka and, ironically, will guide Frontale in the future).

Frontale had a slogan that summarized: “We have just one obsession in mind: coming back to J1”. They just didn’t achieve that goal, they crushed at it. Having BOTH Marcus and Juninho turned out to a no-brainer. Just to put it in context, in his Japanese career – which ran through the whole Japanese football pyramid, from JFL to J1 – Marcus Vinicius de Morais scored 142 goals in 270 games.

It’s not like Frontale were unbeatable: they actually lost seven games out of 44, which has been beaten only by three clubs among J2 League champions in the last decade (Omiya Ardija in 2015, Kashiwa Reysol in 2019 and Tokushima Vortis in 2020), although over 42 games. But Frontale got just three draws… which means they were going for the win every match. And in fact, they won 34 games: 10 of those by scoring 4 or more goals.

The main heroes

The main trait about that squad was loyalty. Take the backline: the three most-present in defense in that season were Yoshinobu Minowa (eight years in the squad), Hiroki Ito (12 seasons with Frontale, his full career) and Shuhei Terada (same path). Both Minowa and Terada reached the Japan national team thanks to their performances with Frontale. Last but not least, Terada is currently in the staff of Kawasaki as an assistant coach.

We can’t deny a 22 years-old in his sophomore season made the difference. He debuted the year before and 2004 represented the first time with his no. 14. Kengo Nakamura was still relatively unknown within the Japanese football-sphere, but it seemed fair to say he was just starting. 41 games and five goals testify the weight – emotionally and technically – he already had back then on the squad.

And then there was the “Carioca contingent”: just like now – with Jesiel and Leandro Damião, maybe Marcinho soon? –, the Brazilians made the difference. Augusto César wasn’t just the older player within the squad, but also the guide for the team. He came from winning ways with Corinthians in Brazil – playing with future World Champions – and Kashima Antlers. Relying on his experience was the right call.

The Kawasaki Sun.

Then there was the no. 10. No, not Marcus, who nevertheless had his impact on Frontale in his first two years on the black and blue side of the Tama river. We’re talking about Juninho. No, not Pernambucano or Paulista, but Carlos Alberto Carvalho dos Anjos Júnior, who had already 28 goals for Frontale in his rookie season. The ’04 was just magical to witness: Juninho scored 37 more, cementing his role in Frontale’s history.

Some numbers

We gave you already a lot of numbers, so just try to stick to these three.

104. Like the goals Frontale scored, with 14 players who appeared in the score sheet that season. As today, it’s still the record for most goals scored by a team in a J2 campaign.

(+)66. No, not a number code for calling a foreign country, but the goal difference accumulated by Frontale in that ’04 under Sekizuka.

34. It’s the number of wins Frontale gathered in that year. Like we said, a team playing always for the win was sometimes losing, but – with that kind of firepower and talent – could actually win a lot of matches. And indeed, they did.

Where are they now?

It’s tough to write something more than we’ve already done throughout the last 18 months. We even did it in Italian, I mean… we’ve covered Frontale enough, we think.

  • Unlike two of his players (Naoki Soma and Toru Oniki), Takashi Sekizuka faced an uphill battle once he left Frontale. He brought Kawasaki almost to the top, always slipping one step from the finish line. He then slipped again, coming fourth in the 2012 London Olympics.

    Unfortunately, his two final stints in the club football were dreadful: he lasted just 21 games at Júbilo Iwata, on their way to drop to J2. Then a three years-stint with JEF United Chiba produced only a playoff final lost to Montedio Yamagata in 2014, before seeing the end of his time in the dugout.
  • Juninho scored 37 goals in 39 games that season. But he did more than that: he’s still the player with most hat-tricks in J2 (6), the most hat-tricks in one season (3, just like he already did in ’03) and the most goals in a season (37, tied by Hulk in ’07). He repeated himself even in J1, where he won again the top-scoring title and scored double-digits of goals for sixe seasons in a row.

    He even wanted to get Japanese citizenship and represent Japan, but he abandoned that desire after realizing he wasn’t fluent enough with the language. Nevertheless, he remained a symbol in both Frontale’s and J. League’s history.
  • Takuro Yajima, a young 19-years-old stirker in ’04, played just one game: 28 minutes at Sagan Tosu in an away 3-0 win. He’s always been a mystery to us: he ended up playing a decade in J1, but he never scored more than seven goals per year. Never reached a peak in terms of performance.

This was the third 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. If you want to read our two previous episodes, here they are (Jubilo ’02 and Sanfrecce ’08).

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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