Kawasaki Frontale can take the next step after dominating Japanese football by becoming an Asian powerhouse, experts say, after the club from the Tokyo suburbs won their fourth J-League title in five years.
Frontale, who wrapped up the championship last week with four games to spare, have lost only twice all season and have racked up a J-League record 85 points so far.
Japanese football experts believe the team are just getting started and have the potential to make their mark on Asia’s premier club competition, the AFC Champions League.
“They’ll continue to have a strong team and they’re preparing to renovate their stadium, which will attract more fans when it’s finished,” said Takeshi Eto, a football journalist who has covered Frontale for 20 years.
“They’re not in Tokyo but they’re in the Tokyo area. I think they’re a team that can become known throughout Asia,” he said of the team from south of the capital.
Frontale have won four J-League titles, one Emperor’s Cup and one League Cup in their history — all in the last five years.
But they have yet to make an impact in the Asian Football Confederation’s flagship Champions League, having never gone past the quarter-finals in eight appearances.
Frontale exited this year’s competition at the first knockout stage, the round of 16, losing on penalties to defending champions Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea after having won all their group matches.
Former Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura says the club “can’t move up to the next level” without success in the AFC Champions League.
“With each year, everyone is more determined to do well in Asia,” said Nakamura, who retired in January after playing almost 700 games for Frontale.
“Next season, they’re really going to go for it. But the players have to be ready because the level in Asia is getting better.”
Some doubted whether Frontale could defend their league title this season, after club legend Nakamura retired and midfielder Hidemasa Morita moved to Portugal.
Frontale suffered a further blow over the summer when forward Kaoru Mitoma and midfielder Ao Tanaka both left for Europe.
But manager Toru Oniki has kept the club on an even keel since taking over at the end of 2016, and he took this year’s changes in his stride.
“I knew that if I trusted in the players, we would get good results,” Oniki said after clinching the league title.
“The most important thing is to trust in the players. That’s what I’ve believed over these past five years.”
– ‘Go the extra mile’ –
Oniki played for Frontale in the 1990s and 2000s, and has been part of the club’s coaching set-up since he retired in 2006.
For much of that time, Frontale were known as a team that consistently challenged for honours but always fell just short.
Nakamura credits Oniki for demanding that the players “go the extra mile”.
“When we won the title for the first time, the atmosphere changed completely,” Nakamura said.
“We understood that what we had been doing for the whole season was the right way. Until we won a title, we didn’t know what it meant to be a winning team.”
Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao is Frontale’s top scorer so far this season with 17 goals, but several other players have stood out.
Marauding left-back Reo Hatate played his way into Japan’s squad for this month’s World Cup qualifiers, while right-back Miki Yamane also made his international debut this year.
Oniki has found a balance of youth and experience, with veterans such as South Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong and midfielder Akihiro Ienaga again proving their worth.
But European sides are likely to come sniffing around Frontale’s players again this winter, and Nakamura knows the future will not all be plain sailing.
“Lots of teams have long periods of success but all teams have dips — what counts is how much you can minimise that,” he said.
“A year will come when they don’t win anything, and they need to be prepared for how they’ll act when that happens.”