Stefan Bienkowski takes a look at the remarkable history of the unexpected J-League leaders.
At times, football at the top can be a little boring. As a result of its own success, the leading leagues around the world cement the foundations and financial dominance of their top clubs, as the rest move further and further away from unlikely success. The life of a European football fan, in particular, is that of mundane football results, and conservative winners.
Yet, the sport keeps us all consumed with the hope that one year a new contender will arise and destroy the shackles of inevitability. Modern football offers few avenues of opportunity to the underfinanced and ill-prepared like it has for the humble club of Kashiwa Reysol, and boy have they taken it.
The Sun Kings have taken the entire league by surprise with nine wins in their first thirteen games, and sit top of the Japanese Soccer League with a four-point cushion as the championship reaches its mid-point.
The club was established in Koganei, a small city outside Tokyo, in 1940 under the name Hitachi Ltd Soccer Club, and was one of the founding members of the Japanese Soccer League in 1965.
From there, they enjoyed top-flight success within the Japanese league, with the early 1970’s considered the golden age of their history. A domestic double in 1972, accompanied by a 2nd-place finish in the league and cup final the following year as well as a further Emperor’s Cup trophy in 1975; signifies the club’s dominance in the sport throughout the country at the time.
However, like many great sides, Hitachi Ltd succumbed to decline towards the end of the decade and into the 1980’s, as they flirted with relegation for a number of years, with a string of poor managers failing to recapture the glory days of yesteryear.
This period in the doldrums lasted until 1986, when it was decided that the club needed to up sticks and search for a reinvention. The conclusion to this situation resulted in the club relocating to Kashiwa, where it became Kashiwa Reysol – which literally translates as ‘Kashiwa King-Sun’, and is the reasoning behind the club’s interesting nickname (‘The Sun Kings’) – an acknowledgement of their old ties to the electronics company.
Unfortunately the name was the only encouraging part of Kashiwa Reysol’s new beginning, and they were relegated to the second tier of Japanese football at the end of the 1986 season; whereupon they yo-yoed between divisions one and two for the next five years.
As the J-league established itself throughout the 1990’s and into the modern, successful competition that it is today, Kashiwa found themselves stuck with the unfavourable label of a mid-table team; one which has stuck with them until now.
Kashiwa’s current success can be put down to a lean defence on top of a charismatic, in-form attacking line. It’s no surprise that the club have three players in the top ten of the goalscoring charts, as Tanaka sits top with eight goals in fourteen games, accompanied by Jorge Wagner and Hideaki Kitajima who both sit on five goals each.
The team have done well to capitalise on the strike partnership of Kitajima and Tanaka along with the playmaking skills of Wagner. The pacey Brazilian (who joined from São Paulo in the off season) has been integral in setting up play from the left wing, and has proven himself to be one of the early contenders for signing of the season.
Partner this with one of the best defensive records in the league, alongside a winning mentality from winning the J2 last season, and you have a team that deserves to sit top of the league.
Of course, critics will argue that the side is yet to come up against some of the bigger names in the league, and has began to stumble in its past few games with a 3-0 loss to Jubilo Iwata two weeks ago, followed by a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Osaka on Wednesday.
Whether the club can keep their title-winning dream alive is another matter altogether, and something that can only be determined through time. As football has taught us, these unexpected highs rarely seem to last forever and as brightly as Kashiwa came in to our existence, they may now fade away with similar haste.
Injuries, baffling referee decisions and general form are the roadside warning signs to help predict which way the league trophy will go, and a betting man will have his money on one of the more established teams, with deeper squads. But let us just pretend – for a while – that things have changed and these newcomers are here to offer an alternate narrative to the mundane world of modern football.