Newly crowned Asian champions Gamba Osaka began life as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Soccer Club, but assumed their current name when the J.League was formed in 1992. The name Gamba comes from the Italian word for leg, which represents the club's ambition of building a humble yet powerful football team.
However, Gamba's road to success took longer than many expected. Despite installing noted former striker Kunishige Kamamoto as the club's first coach and boasting the likes of forward Akihiro Nagashima and midfielder Hiromitsu Isogai, the club finished seventh in the inaugural J.League season in 1993 and tenth the following campaign. German coach Siegfried Held was brought in for the 1995 season, but despite much talk about rebuilding the team and reviving its fortunes, Gamba finished a mediocre 14th.
The first glimmer of a revival came in 1996 under Croatian coach Josip Kuze. Although Gamba came 12th in his first season in charge, Kuze decided sweeping changes were required. His introduction from 1997 of youngsters such as Junichi Inamoto, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Takahiro Futagawa and Masashi Oguro, products of Gamba's youth system and endowed with excellent technique and tactical awareness, laid the foundations for future success.
Leading from the front was Cameroon forward Patrick Mboma, who struck a rich vein of form to help Gamba finish fourth in 1997. Despite mixed results between 1998 and 2001, the players being brought up from the youth ranks were quietly turning Gamba into one of Japan's most promising teams.
Coach Akira Nishino inherited the side in 2002 and has turned Gamba from pretenders into champions. In the early years of the J.League, Gamba and Urawa Red Diamonds were regularly at the wrong end of the table and were derided by some as "excess baggage." Both teams have since built themselves into two of the league's powerhouses by taking a long-term view toward squad development. The Reds won the AFC Champions League in 2007, Gamba did likewise in 2008.
Gamba have picked up several domestic titles in recent seasons. After winning the J.League and losing the Nabisco Cup final in 2005, the club reached the final of the 2006 Emperor's Cup and then triumphed in the 2007 Nabisco Cup. Although key players including defensive linchpin Miyamoto and striker Oguro headed overseas during this period, Gamba seamlessly replaced them by bringing in forward Ryuji Bando, midfielder Tomokazu Myojin and defender Akira Kaji - all past or present Japan internationals. A string of Brazilian strikers, including Araujo, Magno Alves, Bare and Lucas, have ensured Gamba have not lacked firepower in recent seasons.
Much of Gamba's play revolves around midfielder Yasuhito Endo, whose deadly free kicks and silky passing skills have also made him an integral part of the national team. Endo is at the heart of the possession game at which Gamba excels.
Although Gamba executives have heaped praise on Nishino for keeping the trophy cabinet bulging, club President Kikuo Kanamori still has lofty ambitions. "I really want the club to be crowned champions once more so we can forge a truly golden era," Kanamori said. Nishino advocates an attacking brand of football and plans to hone the slick-passing style of play that has brought his team so much success.
Gamba's superb youth-development scheme will undoubtedly continue to produce talented players from the Kansai region, and who are capable of playing at the top level. Midfielder Takahiro Futagawa and defender Michihiro Yasuda, two more youth-team products, have already earned international honours and are likely to be among those charged with ensuring Gamba remain a dominant force in the Asian game for some time yet.
Michihiro Yasuda (defender), Yasuhito Endo (midfielder), Lucas (forward)
Gamba were unbeaten on their march to the Asian Champions League title. After four wins and two draws during the group stage (14 goals scored, eight conceded), Gamba stormed through the knockout stage with five wins and a draw while scoring 13 goals and conceding just three.
The numbers game
27 - the number of goals Gamba scored in 12 games in the 2008 Asian Champions League. Gamba defeated Australian team Adelaide United 5-0 on aggregate in the two-legged final.