Sayonara, 2021

2021 isn’t going to be easy to forget. Despite COVID disrupting the calendar as we used to know it and we had also the break due to the Tokyo Olympics, somehow J. League brought it home and now they’re even ready for a new executive at the top. But if the departure of Mitsuru Mirai – chairman of the championship since 2014, who will be (theoretically) followed by Yoshikazu Nonomura, former Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo president –, that’s not the only goodbye we have to remember.

Maybe unlike last year – where the list of retirements was really an excellent one, including our major pick: Hisato Sato –, but 2021 as well has witnessed many players hanging their boots and looking for something new in their off-pitch life. Some of them have been pillars of the national team and took the leap to Europe, while others made history in J. League, wearing many jerseys along the way.

To pick eleven legends – with the usual “10+1 format” we chose in 2020 –, we looked through the retirements from this year and proposed this list. No honorable mentions this time: we go straight to the real deal.

24/12/1988, 2007-2021 | Vissel Kobe, Mito HollyHock, FC Imabari, Iwate Grulla Morioka, Kyoto Sanga

It’s almost incredible how Doi went through some iconic teams, but at the wrong moment. He played for Vissel’s youth ranks and stayed in the team two years when Kobe weren’t anywhere on the Japanese football map. He was loaned to Mito when Koji Homma was still thriving; he joined FC Imabari when the rising project there hadn’t still started. He then signed for Iwate Grulla Morioka in the Regional Leagues and was loaned to Kyoto Sanga without any pitch time.

Despite that, Kohei Doi was indeed crucial for Morioka, being the pillar for almost a decade. He featured when the club was climbing the ladder towards professionalism, played many games in the obscure years, and even this year – when promotion to J2 became real – lost the starting spot to FC Tokyo-loanee Taishi Brandon Nozawa, but couldn’t hold the tears for the goal achieved. Oh, and he also scored a goal in 2014!

18/06/1983, 2006-2021 | Nagoya Grampus (x2), JEF United Chiba, Oita Trinita, Kamatamare Sanuki

After losing Shimizu last year, Kamatamare Sanuki will lose two further senators in 2021. It’s like the collective heritage built throughout the 2010s is slowly fading away, between bad choices and a small market that can’t keep the pace of other realities in a developing scenario like today’s J. League. In this scenario, Takeuchi joined Sanuki after a relevant career as a J. League.

Developed by Nagoya Grampus, he won the J1 title in 2010 under Dragan Stojković, but then joined JEF United Chiba for four years, only to come back to Nagoya for two years. Another two seasons-stint in Oita and then Sanuki, being the captain from 2020. After retiring, he’ll oversee improving the quality of the top team, scouring the region for further talents: something Kamatamare desperately need to leave a mark on J3.

18/09/1987, 2006-2021 | Cerezo Osaka, Oita Trinita, Kawasaki Frontale, Júbilo Iwata, Tegevajaro Miyazaki, Tochigi Uva FC, Fujieda MYFC

We could have really talked about another career, right? In 2007, a young 19 years-old striker left a mark at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, bringing Japan almost to the quarterfinals. Nurtured by Cerezo Osaka – famous for their eye on talent –, Yasuhito Morishima was supposed to take Japan by storm. Instead, his career has been full of ups and downs, almost inexplicable.

He could find the right form neither in Osaka nor in Oita, until a poker against Kyoto Sanga opened a breach. He joined Kawasaki Frontale to be a back-up striker, but rarely found back the groove, falling from playing in the ACL to featuring in the Kyushu Soccer League three years later in Miyazaki. He then re-emerged with Fujieda MYFC, having a beautiful debut season in 2019, only to miss continuity before retiring. It’s been always the same story.

17/12/1984, 2003-2021 | Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Montedio Yamagata, FC Gifu, Tochigi SC, Kamatamare Sanuki

A folk hero of the lower divisions, Takagi played in J1 when he was 22 and he signed for Sanfrecce Hiroshima straight out of high school. Only two games, which then became a long drifting process through the whole Japanese football ladder: J2 in Yamagata, the Tōkai Adult Soccer League and the JFL with FC Gifu, back to the second division with them, only to also wear the jerseys of Tochigi SC and Kamatamare Sanuki.

The club from the Kagawa Prefecture became his true love, since Takagi was born in Sanuki: he played more than 400 games for Kamatamare, being the no. 10 for eight long years and living through their entire J2 journey. Even in J3, Takagi was an appreciated senator within the squad, but he opted to retire at the end of 2021: “After graduating from high school and becoming a professional soccer player, I didn’t expect to be able to continue this far”. He did though, and with some credit.

14/05/1985, 2004-2021 | Sagan Tosu (x2), Vegalta Sendai

Speaking of folk heroes, a little higher in the ladder there’s Yoshiki Takahashi, who played a lot of J2 in the first decade of his career, but found a beloved spot within Sagan Tosu. In fact, the holding midfielder played all but two seasons for the club (he spent two years with Vegalta Sendai). He joined Sagan just when they came out from the worst season in their history, closing dead last in a 12 teams-season in J2.

From then, it was just a continuous rise: Takahashi was picked as a captain in 2006, being just 20 and playing alongside his future head coach, South Korean veteran Yoon Jong-hwan. Sagan reached promotion when he was in Sendai, but Takahashi came back to loyally serve the club until this very day with his presence and relentless stamina. His final goodbye in front of a loving crowd against Vissel Kobe was pretty touching.

08/12/1983, 2005-2021 | FC Tokyo, Vegalta Sendai, Gamba Osaka, Fagiano Okayama, FC Ryukyu

He never played for the national team, although maybe – from time to time – he would have deserved at least a call-up. He was one of the most promising strikers joining from a university, but he didn’t live up to those massive expectations. Nevertheless, Shingo Akamine can be happy about what he achieved throughout his career: 15 years spent on the pitch, mostly on the top-flight and with a heart-warming ending.

His career would deserve an article of its own, but he joined FC Tokyo in 2005. Unfortunately, the resume from Komazawa University partially helped, since he didn’t deliver as expected. He then joined Vegalta Sendai, becoming a cult figure in five wonderful years. Even when he moved to Fagiano Okayama, he scored a historical goal in the playoffs bringing the club as closest as ever to J1.

He closed his last game with a winning goal in Tochigi for his hometown club (Akamine is born in Naha, Okinawa, and spent the last year with FC Ryukyu). Tough to ask more for your goodbye match.

08/09/1984, 2003-2021 | Cerezo Osaka, Kagoshima United FC

Despite the writer of this piece is following J. League closely from 2010, it has been rare to witness Noriyuki Sakemoto anywhere. Maybe it’s because Cerezo Osaka – his beloved club, the one he joined straight out of high school in 2003 – didn’t really leave any spotlight for hard-working midfielders. Nevertheless, Sakemoto has been there through thick and thin: the almost-title in ’05, the pool of immense talent, the relegation to J2, the first trophies.

When he started playing for the U-23 side in J3 since 2016 and then got released in 2018, he decided that his career wasn’t over. He joined Kagoshima United FC for their first-ever J2 season and found a second home. He had a decent year in the second division, then stayed for two further seasons and even scored a hat-trick in 15 minutes as a striker. By any chance, it happened against Cerezo Osaka U-23, in his old stadium.

27/11/1982, 2001-2021 | Urawa Red Diamonds, Albirex Niigata

The goodbye tour came late for Tatsuya Tanaka, who decided to retire in 2021 despite his appearances became less frequent throughout the last seasons. We’re talking about a first-class player in his prime, who played for Urawa Red Diamonds for more than a decade, winning both their only J1 title and their first ACL Champions League. He also collected 16 caps for Japan national team in the late part of 2000s.

When Urawa changed direction under Mihailo Petrović, Tanaka moved on and signed for Albirex Niigata, who were back then a stable J1 team. And it’s strange how Tanaka stayed in Niigata nine years, yet his contribution wasn’t as strong as before: his prime was behind him. In fact, Tanaka left Niigata the first time at the end of 2019, but he was re-signed a couple of months later.

Fate is so strange that, right when he was about to retire, Urawa Red Diamonds signed a player with his same name and surname, wearing honorably the same no. 11. And even he featured just in 32 minutes this season, those were significant: in the home game against Machida Zelvia, the whole field stopped to salute a veteran J. Leaguer, who will continue serving Albirex (he signed as an assistant coach in the top team).

11/04/1980, 1999-2021 | Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus (x2), Cerezo Osaka, V-Varen Nagasaki

We often have discussed – both here and on Twitter – the problem of aging Japanese players trying to prolong their career beyond their chances. We talked about it because resistance to change is a worrying tendency in Japan and football is no stranger to these. But in this hardly changing scenario, you have your exceptions to this golden rule… and Keiji Tamada is a solid embodiment of this awareness.

Yes, the striker went on to play until 41, but with conscience. He changed four teams over two decades of career, but he left a mark wherever he went. He was young in Reysol, but that explosiveness made him gain a spot in the national team. He was loyal to Grampus, where he won some titles and reached two World Cups (he also came back for a second stint). He was fundamental to bring back Cerezo Osaka to J1 and he served a senator role with V-Varen Nagasaki.

Especially in his last stint, we’d say that’s the most significant: is there something Tamada had to prove at age 38? No. But he accepted the challenge of being in J2 and found a space for himself in a top team of the second tier. Class stayed intact beyond age, but when the end approached, Tamada didn’t try to land a move in J3 or some bizarre sixth chance. He was at peace and the fans supported him, always and no matter where he was.

09/06/1982, 2001-2021 | Cerezo Osaka (x2), RCD Mallorca (SPA), Vissel Kobe (x2), VfL Wolfsburg (GER), Kawasaki Frontale (x2), FC Tokyo, Júbilo Iwata, Tokyo Verdy

You expected him at no. 1, uh? Sorry to disappoint, but he’s not gonna be there. Not because Yoshito Ōkubo is not a huge part of J. League in the last 20 years: he’s still right now the all-time top-scorer and featured in almost 400 J1 games, while also having collected two separate stints in Europe (and a Bundesliga title!) and played two World Cups for Japan.

From our standpoint, it’s also a fascinating tale. He began and closed his career with Cerezo Osaka. He started as a winger and ended his journey as one of the most lethal strikers in J. League history, which also impacted positively on his return in the national team in 2014, just when he seemed out of any contention once the Zaccheroni reign started in 2010. But something was missing: titles.

In fact, Kawasaki Frontale under Kazama made him the best scorer ever in J. League, but he didn’t win with them. They started winning once he left to join FC Tokyo, which didn’t help his chances. When he came back, he lasted just six months under Oniki before picking personal headlines over squad titles (otherwise you don’t end up choosing Júbilo Iwata as your next destination and living a scoreless year in J2 with Tokyo Verdy).

Can you process how the best striker ever in J. League history never won a national trophy, whether we’re talking of a championship or a cup title? Ōkubo seemed to have understood these mistakes, because his last year saw him becoming more emotional, far away from the gritty and controversial character who grew up throughout the 2010s (just for fun: he gathered 103 yellow cards). He felt the final step of his journey, even refusing a renewal and opting to retire.

His last appearances – at home against Nagoya Grampus and away at Shimizu S-Pulse – were greeted with a lot of affection of respect. Maybe he’s the direct proof that a player can gather something beyond titles, although he understood that maybe too late in his career.

To discover the number one, though, you can jump here and read more about our pick for the top retirement in 2021.

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