Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The J. League Awards

The J. League Awards.
With the Japanese season currently ensconced in its long winter hibernation, it's time to look back on some of the movers and shakers of the 2008 season, as Soccerphile hands out its J. League awards!

Team of the year - Oita Trinita

Both Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka deserve accolades - the former for winning back-to-back J. League titles and the latter for lifting an AFC Champions League/Emperor's Cup double.

But few could begrudge the nomination of Kyushu club Oita Trinita as team of the season.

Not only did coach Pericles Chamusca transform his outfit from potential relegation candidates to a genuine title contender, but he also lifted the first ever J. League trophy in Kyushu's football history, as Oita Trinita lifted the 2008 Yamazaki Nabisco League Cup crown.

They were rarely pretty to watch - Oita combined the best defence in the league with one of the most goal-shy attacks - but they enriched Japanese football by threatening the hegemony of teams from the Kantō plain. Long may it continue.

Best stadium - Nack5 Stadium Omiya

The name might be tragic, but Omiya Ardija's revamped Omiya Park Stadium wins the gong for the best new top-flight ground - by virtue of the fact that it's the only new top-flight ground.

It was actually inaugurated towards the back end of the 2007 campaign, but this being Omiya's first full season in their new home, the Squirrels earn the crown of best stadium on the basis of a compact design, excellent sightlines and the wonderful standing terraces behind the goals.

Now if Omiya could only fill it to its 15,500 capacity on a regular basis, it may just become the fortress that Ardija officials were originally hoping for.

Best supporters - JEF United

Whether from Chiba, Ichihara or anyone else within the region, JEF United fans packed Fukuda Denshi Arena on a consistent basis, despite the fact that their team spent virtually the entire campaign languishing in the relegation zone.

Full houses at home lead to crucial victories over the likes of Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds, and when United went 2-0 down to FC Tokyo on the final day in a match they had to win in order to avoid relegation, their legion of yellow-clad fanatics willed the team home to an incredible 4-2 come-from-behind victory.

Ultimately JEF United stayed up by the seat of their pants, and some of the credit should go to their vociferous supporters.

Worst kit - Tokyo Verdy

Tokyo Verdy's monochrome eyesore was a blight on the league. If the dire football on display from Tetsuji Hashiratani's team didn't have neutral fans praying for their relegation, then Verdy's garish green garb surely did.

Biggest dummy spit - Marcus Tulio Tanaka

Marcus Tulio Tanaka's laughable post-match dummy spit after Gamba Osaka had beaten Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium in May was hilarious... until Tulio's incredible outburst lead to a nasty clash between Reds and Gamba supporters that resulted in 30 million yen worth of fines handed down to both clubs.

Tulio and Urawa team-mate Ryota Tsuzuki top the standings for the most "hysterical dummy spits" in the league, although Reds fans themselves earn a mention for the deafening jeers they lavished on their team following Urawa's stunning final-day 6-1 home defeat to bitter rivals Yokohama F. Marinos.

Worst signing - Marcos Aurélio

Hard to look beyond Shimizu S-Pulse striker Marcos Aurélio, whose zero goals scored despite being the top-paid player at the club inevitably lead to his departure to Brazilian side Coritiba at the end of the season.

Most frequent flyer - Gamba Osaka

Gamba Osaka coach Akira Nishino could be forgiven for despising the sight of airport lounges after his team set off on a jet-setting cavalcade that would have made Marco Polo blush.

After winning the pointless Pan-Pacific Championships in Hawaii last February, Gamba's main source of travel was the AFC Champions League, in which Gamba remarkably won every single one of their away games on trips to Australia, South Korea, Thailand and Syria, as Gamba deservedly lifted the Asian crown.

They also won the Emperor's Cup for good measure, although an eighth place finish in the league provides an ominous warning for those wishing to achieve success both at home and abroad.

Thanks for coming - Consadole Sapporo

No team has been as unprepared for top flight football since, well, Yokohama FC the season before. Yet Consadole Sapporo were always going to face an uphill task.

Their collection of Hokkaido-born misfits and loan-signing cast-offs got off to an inauspicious start when they were belted 4-0 by Kashima Antlers on the opening day - Kashima missed two penalties in that game - and things rarely got much better as Sapporo notched up a mildly embarrasing four wins for the season.

Japanese football is stronger for the presence of the Hokkaido-based side, but until they can sort out some stable finances and uncover some more locally-produced talent, Consadole could struggle to gain a foothold in the top flight.

Most predictable comeback - Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Sanfrecce Hiroshima's romp through the Second Division was as predictable as it was unnecessary.

The southern outfit should never have been relegated in the first place, but after losing the 2007 promotion/relegation playoff to a plucky Kyoto Sanga, Sanfrecce quickly set about pulverising all and sundry on their way to amassing 100 points and 99 goals in J2.

Lead by the prolific Hisato Sato and with a team containing such young talent as Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yojiro Takahagi, Sanfrecce fans will hope to put behind them a wasted year in the bottom tier as Hiroshima look to re-establish themselves back in the top flight.

Biggest heartbreakers - Vegalta Sendai

If Montedio Yamagata winning promotion to the top-flight was the feel-good story of the J2 campaign, then Vegalta Sendai's narrow playoff defeat to Jubilo Iwata earns the "heartbreak award"

The popular northern club are always in the thick of the promotion chase in J2, yet Vegalta constantly seem to fall at the final hurdle.

There's no doubt they have the resources available to clamber back to the promised land, but year after year of setbacks is surely taking its toll, and with the Second Division tougher than ever to get of, it could be a while yet before the citizens of Sendai have the chance to watch J1 football again.

Stay tuned for the next installment when Soccerphile unveils its ten best players of the season.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

Kawasaki Stadium.


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