The Comeback Kid

Kashima Antlers are well-known for their persistency, that iron will that has produced the club we’ve known today. And while they haven’t won a title since 2016 – and even in that case, it was the product of the two stages-championship –, their tradition of producing solid and gritty players stayed immaculate. No one can deny how they kept presenting the world with interesting prospects despite their winning streak slowing down a bit.

Some of them have become true symbols of the club. Take Shoma Doi, a respectable winger with a solid technical skill set who never made it to Europe (despite he had the qualities to make it). Or even now Kento Misao, who’s been captaining the team in the last seasons and was often forecasted to make the leap to the Old Continent. Antlers produced and will produce this kind of player forever.

Among them, there’s one who recently left. At 33 years old, he probably thought he was time to move on. The fun fact is that he moved to J2 League, a division where he never played in his career. Like other Antlers characters – the most obvious link is Takuya Nozawa, who happened to play for Sendai too –, he didn’t play for the national team despite being fit for it (and being called up twice by Halilhodzic).

Now Yasushi Endo is back to his homeland, the Miyagi Prefecture. He joined Vegalta Sendai in the quest of coming back to J1, but mostly to get in touch with his land. And the fact is that “The Comeback Kid” is actually doing pretty well with his new squad, becoming the technical leader that the club missed throughout the last two years.

Pride of Miyagi

Not only Endo comes from the Miyagi Prefecture, but he’s actually born in Sendai. Class ’84, he started playing football with his older brother. He was just three back then, but he could feel he wanted to enjoy his time in football. In 2001, he joined Shiogama FC and he became a name to watch once he was elected as one of the best players in a local tournament. Another name there? Shinji Kagawa, five years younger, but back then with FC Miyagi Barcelona.

Endo stayed with Shiogama FC for the high school too and he was selected to feature in the Sendai Cup International Youth Soccer Tournament. Seeing those performances, Kashima Antlers snuffed the bargain and offered Endo a spot in their roster. At 22, the kid couldn’t say no and accepted the invitation.

Back then, Kashima Antlers were the “must-watch” team in Japan. Júbilo Iwata were fading away, Marinos were relevant but not continuous and Nishino’s Gamba Osaka just came out from their first title. In this scenario, Antlers were the most dominant team in Japan. Their squad featured several national team members – Sogahata, Iwamasa, Oiwa, Araiba, Uchida, the returning Ogasawara, Yanagisawa – and top scorer Marquinhos.

It wasn’t easy to make his way into the rotation, but he found a way to make it. It took some years, because Endo wasn’t playing that much in the first three years, the ones when Kashima made the treble of titles in a row. But in 2010, head coach Oswaldo Oliveira gave him more space on the pitch, and they couldn’t leave him on the bench after that season.

Deer in the Headlights

Furthermore, Endo did a certain work on his style of play. When he joined Antlers, he was clearly a secondary striker, so he should have played alongside Marquinhos or Yuzo Tashiro. That never happened, though, because Oliveira was clearly convinced that he’s going to be more useful as a winger or right midfielder. Endo worked on that and he converted himself into that position.

He found his first goal in the 2010 AFC Champions League against Jeonbuk. The first of 70 he put together for Antlers. It’s embarrassing how many titles he won with the club: 16 silverwares, including four J. League titles, nine national cups, and the 2018 AFC Champions League as a senator. Once Sogahata wasn’t playing and Ogasawara was mostly injured in the final part of his career, Endo often acted as the captain.

But it isn’t just about titles. His style of play and the soft left foot the football gods gave him showed us massive moments. Like the curly rockets he threw from outside the box or the comfy endings in front of the goal. No one has forgotten his tricky and elegant goal against Atlético Nacional in the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup. Yeah, the goal was empty, but you have to think about doing something like that. You must imagine it.

Beyond those historical achievements, it was clear though time took a toll on his profile. Endo played way less in the last three years, despite teammates – like the Brazilian striker Everaldo – admitting how his skills were still outstanding. In 2021, with the blossoming of Ryutaro Araki and a roster full of offensive players (plus the return of Yuma Suzuki and a new manager), it was time to look for something else. Something called home.

Why Sendai?

The will of coming home had the better of every other thought. It didn’t matter that Vegalta Sendai had just come down from J1 after 12 years: Yasushi Endo was happy. Even when introduced on the club’s website, the winger told candidly: “I’ve spent my whole life until graduating from high school in Miyagi. Playing for Vegalta feels like I’m back home”.

In the end, it was indeed the right choice. Endo struggled to find a spot in the Antlers’ starting lineup because the pace is not the same as he can afford at 34. But a J2 team could actually fit his current pace. Furthermore, he can surely give something that Vegalta haven’t had in the last two-three years: a technically gifted player, capable of turning around a game for himself.

Vegalta are one of the oldest clubs for average age of the roster in J2, but that doesn’t mean they’re technically packed. Beside Ryoma Kida and Takumi Nogura, there wasn’t too much to work with. With Endo on the right flank, now there are options. And Endo already left a mark: he scored the winning goal at Mito and Yamagata, plus he brought a goal and an assist in the recent home win against Blaublitz Akita.

The Comeback Kid” might not be at his best, but his current best is dragging Vegalta Sendai to – at least from our end – an unexpected run to the playoffs. Will he bring them back to J1? Tough to say. Surely Sendai look like a team where old J. Leaguers can still say something on the pitch – legendary Ryang Yong-gi is back with the no. 10 and the captain’s armband –, but Yasushi Endo has still time to amaze us like he used to in Ibaraki.

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