Lost Treasures – Kengo Kawamata

One-hit wonders. A light in a strange career, which wasn’t made of sparks and constant success. A sudden corner of attention in an otherwise normal trajectory. There are seasons or years like these ones, with players capable of rising to the occasion when it’s needed the most. Just think of sudden protagonists, who made the front cover for a certain period, without repeating themselves after that season.

Lost Treasures” is a column that featured four episodes, all talking about these kinds of players in the history of J. League. To pick whom to feature in this column, we looked at all the Best XIs composed by the J. League committee at the end of every season and chose four players who made an enormous leap, just to rarely or not repeat themselves in the successive seasons.

Another specific detail: we picked just J. Leaguers, who enjoyed most of their career in the Japanese championship, albeit there have been two exceptions. It’s been a long time since the last piece in this column. We enjoyed a trip on Memory Lane with Marcio Richardes, who once terrorized J. League defenses on a regular basis with the jersey of Albirex Niigata. And it’s funny Niigata is still the environment of this mystery.

Once upon a time, there was this striker, who became a household name for J. League at the age of 24, after several loans. He played for at least two big clubs in the first tier and then disappeared. He came back onto the pitch just a few weeks ago, when he wore a JEF United Chiba jersey in the away game in Kumamoto. One minute: that’s all it took to remember the existence of Kengo Kawamata.

From Saijo to greater things

Born in 1989 in the Ehime Prefecture, Kawamata was meant to be the next big thing for Ehime FC. Straight out of the Ehime Prefectural Komatsu High School, the young Kengo was signed as a special designated player when he was just 16. Ehime FC were going through the first J2 season in their history, and Kawamata played just twice between ’06 and ’07. Nevertheless, someone spotted the striker.

That’s where a long relationship between Albirex Niigata and Kengo Kawamata started. Back then, Albirex weren’t fighting for the title, but Niigata was one of the most vibrant crowds in J. League. Kawamata wasn’t still 20, and he featured just five times in all competitions in the first two years. That’s why he needed to play somewhere else, to grow as a player.

And that’s where the journey begins. First stop: Brazil. Somehow, Kawamata ended up playing on loan for Catanduvense. A strange étape, although the six months in Sao Paulo won’t be the end of this trip. Once he came back to Japan, the striker – 21 years old at this point – played 27 games in J1, but never scored. He hit the posts so many times he gained the nickname “Postman”. And Albirex weren’t exactly thriving back then.

Therefore, Kawamata found a new loan; this time, though, in the right spot. Fagiano Okayama have clearly been one of the best clubs when it comes down to developing young prospects. And the Niigata-loanee didn’t make any exception: with his 18 goals in 38 games, he helped Okayama reach the eighth place – their best season ever in J2 back then – in the table before coming back to his old club. This time, to stay.

Leading in Niigata

Although Kawamata showed some promising signs, no one really expected that much from the 2013 season. Sure, Albirex needed new faces, but would Kawamata really make the difference? 2013 season witnessed Niigata counting on many talents. Masaaki Higashiguchi on goal, Kentaro Oi as a center-back, Léo Silva in the middle of the pitch. But Kawamata ended up being the main guy up front.

In an offensive department featuring Tatsuya Tanaka, Bruno Lopes, Hideya Okamoto and young gun Musashi Suzuki, Kawamata had to be tested. And he answered present by gaining his place in the starting eleven with the passing of the weeks. He played 30 minutes in the first five matchdays, coming off the bench three times and not even featuring against Vegalta and Sanfrecce.

May changed everything: Kawamata scored away at S-Pulse, at home against Kofu and a hat-trick at Tosu. It was his time, no doubt: he ended up having an otherworldly Summer, racking up 10 goals in 10 matches. Niigata went through an encouraging development throughout the season, slowly climbing the table. They won 11 of the 17 matches in the second part of the year, including five in a row to end the season.

In fact, Kawamata scored another hat-trick and – most notably – one of the winning goals to break Marinos’ run to the title. With a streak of eight goals in the last eight games, the no. 20 was the name on every fan’s mouth. 23 goals at the end of 2013, just behind Yoshito Okubo (26). To this, he added the Outstanding Player Award and seven assists: he couldn’t be ignored for the Top XI.

What could have been

Back then, Japan’s head coach Alberto Zaccheroni was clearly looking at him. Unfortunately, 2014 didn’t see the same scoring form: Kawamata dipped to three goals in just 14 games and opted to leave. The idea was to find a better stage somewhere else, and the striker moved to struggling Nagoya Grampus as the next step. That was probably a mistake, in hindsight.

In fact, Kawamata never thrived as he did in Niigata. Actually, when Robin Simovic joined Grampus, the former Albirex was relegated to the bench and his salary adjusted. That’s why Kawamata then moved to Júbilo Iwata, where head coach Hiroshi Nanami strongly supported the arrival of the former Niigata: “Some strikers – like Shinzo Koroki, Hisato Sato, and Ryoichi Maeda – have scored well into their 30s”.

Despite Júbilo struggled in his second season there, Kawamata put together 25 goals in two years, going both seasons in double digits. It seemed like he was back… but then even Iwata became tough. In the year of the relegation, the no. 20 scored just once, and he was let go. He then chose JEF United Chiba as his next destination, but after six goals in 2020, Kawamata just disappeared from the rotation.

An injury kept him out for 18 months, but the club renewed his contract for 2022, nevertheless. This all happened despite JEF United moving on from him, fielding Saldanha, Miki, Sakuragawa, Takagi, Buwanika and Tiago Leonço in front of him. Kawamata was playing for the national team four years ago, where he even scored one goal in 2015. Time goes by… not so slowly, uh?

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