So often it is said that it’s not the final result that matters, but the journey that is made to reach the finish line. That, however, is not always true. Sometimes it is the finish line that matters most. Amongst the many title races that football has had in recent years, a few have gone right down to the very last minutes of a gruelling season.
There are some classic examples. In 2011-12, the Premier League was fought until the last day between the two Manchester sides, United and City. In Germany in 2000-01, Schalke and Bayern Munich fought until the end. Even over in Spain, it was Barcelona and Real Madrid battling it out until the last matchday in the 2006-07 season. Those are just examples in the top-tiers – there are plenty more in lower divisions.
Going far and wide, the J.League in Japan had a similar scenario. In the last decade, many title-races have gone down to the wire and that adds to the entertainment value of this unique league, which only started in 1993.
An example of that was seen in 2005, a season which is the perfect footballing example of tension, excitement and leaving it for the very end. That season ended with a scenario that may never be seen again, with a well-fought title raise and a surprise ending to bring an end to a wonderful season.
2005: A YEAR OF CHANGE
The year 2005 saw mammoth changes in Japanese football. After winning their second-successive Asian Cup the year before, the league opted to dismiss the two-stage format which was deemed to be too outdated at the time. Of course, this was still the norm in South America, but the Japanese Football Association didn’t deem it as the right way to move forward.
The move was big news as the league was expanded, adding two more teams to bring it to a total of 18. This change also meant that there was no relegation: Kashiwa Reysol played in the relegation play-offs, and ended up winning against Avispa Fukoka. Two teams came up from the second division: Kawasaki Frontale and Omiya Ardija, to form the first formal J.League.
Unpredictability was frequent throughout the season. Kashima Antlers made a solid start but then faltered to Gamba Osaka. The Osaka side then themselves hit a patch of inconsistent form in the middle of the campaign and were in a tussle with their local rivals, Cerezo Osaka. Before the end, Gamba lost three consecutive matches.
At this point, the table was a tasty affair. Cerezo were leading, but their lead wasn’t much. Going into the final matchday, they had come from afar and had 58 points. Their manager was Shinji Kobayashi, known as the “Master of Promotion” for his knack of taking teams to the top-flight of Japanese football – something he still does to this day.
The most prominent players from that squad were Akinori Nishizawa, who had brief stints in Spain and England, whilst they also had Hiroaki Morishima – Mr. Cerezo himself – who even scored in a World Cup match three years prior against Tunisia.
Morishima is highly regarded in these parts. Cerezo’s academy has produced some excellent players like Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Takumi Minamino, and while those players made their name in Europe, Morishima stayed in Japan and gained the love of his local fans.
In the penultimate match of the season, Cerezo actually drew due to a goal conceded in injury time, which cut their lead down. Without that, their lead at the top would’ve been at three points and the final matchday of the season would’ve been a less tense affair. Instead, here they were, going into the final game of the season with the title in the balance.
Gamba Osaka led the table for much of the season, but complacency cost them towards the end. Their manager, Akira Nishino, wanted to do big things with the club, but they had achieved any major success. The title that season would’ve been a huge boost, but Nishino’s reputation is strong in the region.
Prior to Nishino’s arrival, there was little excitement about Gamba, but this changed when Nishino put his plans into practice. They had one of the best players in Asia in the form of Yasuhito Endo and a solid squad that featured members of the national team. Additionally, their top goalscorer, Clemerson de Araújo Soares, had scored 33 times that campaign.
Despite that, Gamba were struggling to get past the finishing line. Their three defeats prior to the end of the season not only opened the door for Cerezo but also for three other teams, who like them, were two points behind Cerezo on 56 points. One of these clubs was JEF United Chiba, who had just overcome them in the J.League Cup a few weeks prior.
JEF are one of the historical sides in the country but were largely a second-division side for the previous decade. In 2005, they had players like Yuki Abe, Naotake Hanyu, and Koki Mizuno, who amongst others, had represented the national team at some point in their careers. They were also led by Ivica Osim, who would manage the national side in the future.
Alongside the two Osaka sides and JEF in the title race were Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds. The Antlers are the biggest club in Japan, having won every trophy available to them in the previous 25 years and they could boast the most top-flight titles in league history with eight.
Kashima Antlers are more than just a football club. Confined in the Ibaraki Prefecture – an area predominant with nothing but industries – they have done very well for themselves. They were one of the first clubs in Japan to send players abroad, but despite losing talent each year, they continued to excel.
In matchday 33, the Antlers drew away against Shimizu S-Pulse, while the Urawa Red Diamonds won against Jubilo Iwata to close the gap at the top. Guided by German manager, Guido Buchwald, Uruwa were a mixture of youth and foreign stars – Robson Ponté was one particularly in form.
With five teams holding a chance to win the league, the last matchday of the season featured the following fixtures:
- Cerezo Osaka, the leaders, hosted FC Tokyo, who were comfortably in mid-table without any relegation worries;
- Gamba Osaka were on the road against Kawasaki Frontale, who had enjoyed a solid debut campaign in the top-flight;
- Urawa Red Diamonds were also on the road against Albirex Niigata;
- Kashima Antlers hosted already 16th place Kashiwa Reysol, who were guaranteed to play the relegation play-offs against Ventforet Kofu;
- JEF United Chiba hosted Nagoya Grampus.
THE LAST DAY
Saturday, 3 December 2005. All five teams kicked-off at the same time in the afternoon. The two Osaka sides were the favourites to win the league, but the other three had a slim chance that was motivating enough for them.
Urawa Red Diamonds make a strong start, scoring twice in the opening 15 minutes before adding another two before the end to seal a 4-0 win in Niigata. Kashima Antlers are just as good: they make light work of Kashiwa Reysol and win with the same scoreline as the Red Diamonds. Two of the five won comfortably.
As the day progressed, the two main venues of interest are the Nagai Stadium in Osaka and the Todorki Stadium in Kawasaki. Amazingly, the two were mirroring each other on the field of play as well. Nishizawa’s header puts Cerezo ahead and their support were jubilant. This was a club that had never won a major trophy, and doing so ahead of their rivals would make this victory sweeter.
Gamba, meanwhile, take the lead in their own game. Araújo’s wonderful long-range effort added to his tally that season and they were just as pumped as their local rivals. Things would get messy in Osaka. Cerezo conceded an equaliser as Norio Suzuki silenced the Nagai Stadium in the 20th minute. There was still time, but the anxiousness was palpable.
Between minutes 36 and 38. there is drama in both venues. Cerezo forward Tatsuya Furuhashi goes down in the box to win a penalty. The call was dubious, but it stood nonetheless. While that happened, Kawasaki find an equaliser against Gamba through a corner kick; Shuhei Terada’s header turned the title race on its head.
In Osaka, Cerezo’s left-back, Zé Carlos, takes possession of the ball to take the penalty. He seems nervous, which is only natural at this point. FC Tokyo’s goalkeeper, Yoichi Doi, tries to bother Carlos, and his attitude attracts whistles from the crowd and a yellow card from the referee. Carlos doesn’t seem like the right choice to take the spot-kick, and it showed, as his effort was saved.
By half-time, the incredible was happening. With the Antlers and Red Diamonds already up, there were three teams at 59 points. In this scenario, Cerezo, the leaders at the start, were in third place due to their poor goal difference of +8. Urawa Red Diamonds had a goal difference of +26, while Kashima Antlers stood at +20. There was, however, the second-half to play.
Cerezo bag the second goal, scored by Nishizawa. He took advantage of a rebound and comfortably slotted the ball home to give his side the lead. This puts them in pole position, but it isn’t enough as Gamba double their lead as well through captain Tsuyenatsu Miyamoto.
For another six minutes, Cerezo are nervous again, but they calm down as Kawasaki Frontale equalise through Hiroyuki Taniguchi’s header, taking the title back to the famous black-and-pink of Cerezo. The fifth side in the equation, JEF United, have done well in their game: they beat Nagoya Grampus 2-1 in injury time.
FC Tokyo have nothing to lose against the current league leaders. They kept pushing, but to no reward. Mothiro Yoshida, Cerezo’s goalkeeper, had had a good afternoon. Over in Kawasaki, Gamba return to take control as Endo (two) and Araújo score to all but seal the victory. The fans are jubilant, some even find their way to the pitch as they believe the title is theirs.
Despite losing a man, Gamba have sealed a win, but not the title as of yet. Cerezo were still holding on but weren’t able to push for a third. As the match entered the 90th minute, drama ensued once again.
FC Tokyo win a corner, and with all to gain, their players charge forward. The ball comes in and the first shot comes from Yusuke Kondo, whose attempt is saved by the goalkeeper, but the rebound falls nicely to Yasuyuki Konno, who slots it in to break Cerezo hearts.
The staff, management, and players are in disbelief. Over in Kawasaki, Gamba get to view the final three minutes of the action in Osaka and they can’t quite buy it as well. Nothing could’ve stopped them from winning the title now.
At the final whistle, there is great disappointment on one side of Osaka. Not only do Cerezo lose the chance to win the league, they also finish outside the top four and in fifth place due to their poor goal difference. They started the day on top of the table, but ended it as the only side from the top five to have not won. In just 30 seconds, they went from dreams of lifting the league title aloft to finishing in fifth place.
The fate of those five clubs has been different over the next decade.
Kashima Antlers remained the powerhouse, winning more titles and becoming the only side in Japanese football history to win it three-successive times. They also added the AFC Champions League in 2018, getting the opportunity to fight it out in the FIFA Club World Cup, falling just short against Real Madrid in the final.
Urawa Red Diamonds also improved. They won the Champions League themselves in 2007 (and reached the final in 2019), overcoming strong Chinese teams like Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou Evergrande. Domestically, however, they have fallen short by a whisker on several occasions.
JEF United Chiba went downhill. Despite being half-owned by a powerful organisation in the East Japan Railway Company, they won another J.League Cup in 2006, but then got relegated in 2009. They’ve stayed there since and have fallen short in the promotion play-offs four times.
Gamba Osaka, the champions, signed Konno, the man who scored the winner against Cerezo, in 2012. After 2005, they started a dynasty and added the Champions League to their honours’ list. When their fans had a vote to select the best eleven in their history, nine of the eleven that featured on that glorious day in Kawasaki made the cut.
Cerezo Osaka, though, are probably still reeling from the effects of 2005. Despite suffering from relegation prior to that year, that title collapse is considered to be the worst day in the club’s history. In 2006, they went down, finishing in 17th place in the year after their last-minute slump.
They’ve risen since, and they’ve found their redemption. Cerezo returned to the top flight in 2010 and won their first major title in 2017. The Emperor’s Cup and J.League Cup were added to their trophy cabinet, but it is still the shortcomings of 2005 that casts a shadow over their club.
A last-day title race often includes two, or maybe even three, teams at most. But in Japan, it went down to the wire with five. The 2005 J.League season finished with arguably the greatest title race in the sport’s history, and it was only fitting that it included the most dramatic of finishes. Gamba won, Cerezo suffered, but it was the sport that was the most joyous.