Urawa Reds beat their closest rivals Gamba Osaka 3-2 in a championship decider to claim their first J.League crown on Saturday.
A quirk of fate somehow contrived to pitch the top two teams in the country together in the final fixture of the season. Urawa, who were three points ahead of Gamba with a superior goal difference, went into the match knowing that the title would be theirs with no worse than a three-goal defeat.
However, the Reds got a rude awakening after 21 minutes when Magno Alves opened the scoring for the Osaka outfit. Jolted into life, Urawa then started to push forward, equalising six minutes later through Robson Ponte. Two goals from Brazil international Washington in the 44th and 59th minutes then gave the men from Saitama the breathing space they needed to close out the game.
Japanese internationals Ryuji Bando and Yasuhito Endo were back in the Gamba side after their respective injuries, and the holders pushed for an unlikely victory right until the bitter end. They received some recompense for their efforts when Satoshi Yamaguchi headed in a second consolation in the 78th minute, but it was too little too late for Gamba.
In addition, Urawa's victory saw them set a new record for unbeaten games at home (22), and also set a new mark for the lowest number of goals conceded in a league season, 28, or an average of 0.82 per game.
The spotlight in this deciding match was also on the respective teams' leading strikers: Urawa's Washington and Osaka's Magno Alves. The pair, who happened to be strike-partners for Brazil at the FIFA Confederations Cup Japan 2001, were both gunning for the J.League Golden Boot, an award they ended up sharing with 26 goals apiece.
More about Urawa
Urawa Reds, who were formed as Urawa Red Diamonds in 1993, were one of the ten original member clubs of the J.League. The club went on to finish bottom of the standings in 1993 and 1994 but fortunately maintained their top-flight status as there was no relegation at the time. The fact that one of their players from those difficult days, Guido Buchwald, was the man to coach them to their first J.League title this week was an irony lost on no-one at the club.
Urawa dropped down to the J2 in 2000, before bouncing back the following year and going on to lift their first silverware, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, in 2003. Buchwald returned to the club as manager the following season, when the team really started to gather momentum.
Yet in spite of Urawa's decision to strengthen their squad again this season, there were many sceptics who doubted whether Buchwald was the man for the job. As it happened, their fears were to prove groundless as the team went on to cap a historic season in style. Proof of how far the club has come in a short space of time lies in its contribution to the Japanese squad, which currently boasts seven Reds players, with six more having previously been called up for international duty.
At the press conference after winning the title, the German spoke highly of his squad: "I think one of our strengths was the talent of the substitutes we were able to call on as well as those squad members who often didn't make the bench," said Buchwald, who plans to return to his homeland after three successful years with the club. "For example, the likes of Tomoyuki Sakai always did really well for us when needed. Players like him didn't get downhearted when they weren't picked, they worked hard in training to try and earn their opportunity, and really came on as players. The same can be said of my entire squad. That's the power of the Reds."
Last term's third-placed side, Kawasaki Frontale, beat Gamba's city rivals Cerezo Osaka 3-1 on Saturday to sneak past Gamba into second spot and secure a place in next year's AFC Champions League. This result also meant that Cerezo dropped into the J2 after five years in the top flight.
Star of France 98 bows out in style
Meanwhile in the J2, Yokohama FC, who won their first J2 title and promotion to the J1 the previous week, celebrated with a comfortable 2-0 home win against mid-table Ehime FC. Their retiring captain Shoji Jo, who scored against Iran in Japan's final qualifier for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ to help his country to their first-ever finals, said cheerfully: "We couldn't have won the title without these wonderful fans. It's been such a happy day for me, and I can't think of a better way to make my exit."
Takuya Takagi took over the managerial reins at Yokohama FC in the second week of this year's campaign, and he fused the passion and experience of four of the class of '98 - Jo, Kazuyoshi Miura, Motohiro Yamaguchi and Norio Omura - with the energy and talent of the club's younger players. Club chairman Yasuhiko Okudera was also delighted with his team's achievement, saying: "We finally made it into the J1. I have to praise the efforts of the players and the enthusiastic support of the fans."
Kashiwa Reysol also clinched promotion to the top flight after taking second spot with a 3-0 away win at Shonan Bellmare.
Elsewhere, Vissel Kobe were denied automatic promotion when they slipped to third after a 2-1 loss away to Vegalta Sendai, a match that also Vissel's inspirational captain Atsuhiro Miura sent off after receiving two yellow cards. The club will now play the 16th placed team in J1, Avispa Fukuoka, in a two-leg play-off on the 6 and 9 December to decide which side will play alongside Japan's finest next season.