Kashima Antlers have been ever-presents in the J.League since its inception in 1993. That is not to suggest they have been there simply to make up the numbers. By contrast, the Antlers have won the competition a record seven times, a distinction complimented by a series of other trophies during the professional era of Japanese football.
A key factor in the team's success has been their close ties with Brazil, which inspired their annus mirabilis of 2000. Eight years on from that memorable treble, FIFA.com turns the spotlight on the pride of Kashima.
Birth of an institution
Kashima Antlers began life as an amateur corporation side, in their case Sumitomo Metal Industries in 1947, and when the creation of the J.League was first envisaged in the late-1980s, they were told they had little chance of becoming founding members. Huge local support, the construction of a magnificent stadium and the arrival of Zico would, nevertheless, sway this judgement.
With the Brazilian legend acting as player and on-field leader, the team evolved into a tactically-astute, exciting unit by the time the J.League kicked off. A 5-0 defeat of Nagoya Grampus Eight on their debut, which was inspired by a Zico hat-trick, paid testament to this. With his compatriot Alcindo also scoring freely, Kashima surprised everyone by winning the first stage of the inaugural campaign, and although they finished runners-up in the overall standings, the quality and verve of their displays sowed the seeds of nationwide popularity.
Making of a legend
It was not, however, until 1996 that the club's 'golden era' really began. Although Zico had, by then, hung up his boots - he would remain a technical advisor to the club for many years - a trio of Brazilians, namely Jorginho, Mazinho and Leonardo, were propelling the Antlers towards greatness.
After winning their maiden J.League title that year, Kashima's squad was strengthened by the arrival of another influential Brazilian, playmaker Bismarck. They won the League Cup and Emperor's Cup double in 1997, and regained the league title the following year, thanks in no small part to the goals of Atsushi Yanagisawa, who would go on to become one of Japan's top forwards.
The emergence of Mitsuo Ogasawara and Koji Nakata made up for failing to seize any trophies in 1999, while the appointment as coach of another former Seleção star, Toninho Cerezo, the following year was to prove crucial to the club's legacy: he immediately led them to a historic treble of J-League, J-League Cup and Emperor's Cup crowns.
Kashima retained their J.League title in 2001, but an even more memorable conquest was to follow that same year. In the final of the J-League Championship (the end-of-season game that then decided the overall league champions) against arch-rivals Jubilo Iwata, a pulsating duel was settled in the Antlers' favour by an exquisite free-kick by Mitsuo Ogasawara in extra time.
After this phenomenal run of success, Kashima endured a difficult spell from 2003 to 2006, when they failed to lift a trophy on home soil. The era coincided with the break-up of their all-conquering squad, with experienced defender Yutaka Akita moving on and elegant midfielder Yasuo Honda retiring. Other key losses were those of talisman Koji Nakata, signed by French giants Marseille, and Atsushi Yanagisawa, who left for Italy's Serie A.
However, the club returned to winning ways in 2007 under the guidance of Brazilian coach Oswaldo de Oliveira. His team, whose key components were defenders Daiki Iwamasa and Fabao, midfielders Ogasawara, Takuya Nozawa and Danilo, and crafty forward Yuzo Tashiro, made a late surge up the J.League table before pipping Urawa Red Diamonds to glory on a dramatic final day.
The Antlers' 40,728-capacity Kashima stadium became Japan's first football-only arena upon its completion in April 1993. The side's inaugural match was a friendly against Brazilian outdit Fluminense, with their first league game coming a month later. Prior to hosting three games at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, the stadium was fitted with state-of-the-art technology and a new playing surface. At the entrance to the ground, a statue of Zico has pride of place.