Wednesday, 05 August 2020

 


Throughout the J.League's history, Cerezo Osaka has been one of the most colourful teams in the League, and not solely for their "flaming pink" uniforms. Although Cerezo has never won the league title, they have come within a whisker of victory on two occasions. In 2000, and again in 2005, Cerezo went into the final match of the season in first place, only to stumble at the final hurdle. While this surely disappointed their fans, it is often the teams that break fans' hearts with dramatic "near misses" that enjoy the most fanatical support. And though there have been lean times as well, including their current stint in Division Two, fans of aggressive, attacking football can always count on Cerezo to put on a good show, both in victory and defeat. 

Cerezo got its start in 1965, as the club team of Yanmar Diesel. In the same year that it was established, the team gained admission to the Japan Soccer League and quickly established itself as a formidable opponent, winning the league championship four times, the league cup three times and the Emperor's Cup twice during the 1970s and early 1980s. Yanmar entered a slump in the late 1980s, and was briefly demoted to the second division, but immediately prior to the formation of the J.League in 1993, the club revived, gaining admission to the JFL in the same year that the J.League was formed. It incorporated as Osaka Football Club Ltd. in 1993, and adopted its current name

In 1993, when it gained its independence from Yanmar, the team adopted the name "Cerezo Osaka", taken from the Spanish word for "cherry". Osaka -- and all of Japan, for that matter -- is well known for its beautiful cherry trees which blossom in a pink profusion during the early spring. The cherry blossoms of Osaka not only inspired the team to adopt the name "Cerezo", but also formed the basis for the colour scheme used on its team uniforms.  A year after adopting this new identity, in 1994, "The Flaming Pinks" won the JFL championship and were inducted into the J.League.

It takes a real tough guy to play in a pink uniform, and Cerezo quickly earned a reputation as a tough opponent, despite the fact that they have never won a championship. In the team's first decade as a J.League club, its character and team image was iconified by team captain Hiroaki Morishima, a small, speedy and clever-footed midfielder whose seemingly boundless energy earned him frequent calls to the national team. In the late 90s, Morishima joined forces with striker Akinori Nishizawa and several top Korean nationals, such as Noh Jung-Yoon, Hwang Sun-Hong and Yoon Jung-Hwan, as well as volante Kazuaki Tasaka, whose bald head and forceful style earned him the nickname "Robocop". The result was one of the most potent offenses in the league, and a run of success which faltered just a single goal short of winning the league title in the 2000 season.

Unfortunately, this marked a high-water mark for the team, and preceded a collapse of dramatic proportions. After a weak finish in the second half of 2000, Cerezo released its Korean contingent, and striker Nishizawa moved overseas, first to Espanyol in Spain, and then to Bolton Wanderers, in England. Injuries to other key personnel made matters worse, and the team quickly went into a tailspin from which it was unable to recover. Cerezo tumbled into the cellar and was relegated to the J2 division at the end of the 2001 season.

But Cerezo regrouped following their relegation, and quickly laid the groundwork for a revival. The team managed to convince most of its top players to stay on, and fight for promotion in the very next year. The relegation experience allowed several youngsters, particularly striker Yoshito Okubo, to get plenty of first-team experience, and blossom into star players. Okubo attracted enough attention to earn calls to the U-23 national team, and eventually the full NT. He and a collection of other young, attack-minded players, supported by the remaining core of veterans like Morishima, propelled Cerezo's immediate return to the J1 division in 2003.

The Flaming Pinks quickly earned a reputation for their offense-minded strategy -- a  style of play that is as flashy as their pink uniforms. However, inconsistent defending and some rather questionable management decisions have held the team back on more than one occasion. The best illustration may be the 2004 season, when Cerezo set a rather dubious "record", by going through five separate coaches over the course of just eight months. Following the close of the 2003 season, in late December the team sacked coach Yuji Tsukada, who had spent only one year at the helm. In January they announced the signing of Croatian coach Petar Nodoveza, who suffered a minor stroke just a few days later, and stepped down without ever even setting foot in Japan. He recommended his own replacement, Bosnian coach Fuad Muzurovic, who arrived late for preseason training, presided over two league losses and a Nabisco Cup loss, and was sacked. The next to step in was Argentinian Alberto Pobor, who lasted almost four months before finally being booed out of town following a 5-1 loss at home to Kashiwa Reysol. Shinji Kobayashi finally settled things down, steering Cerezo away from relegation danger and restoring a semblance of order

By the start of the following season (2005) the team seemed to have regained its senses. The old offensive fire and competitiveness were complemented by a bit of tactical savvy, from Brazilians like Ze Carlos, Fabinho and Bruno Quadros. As the year progressed, youngsters like Kenjiro Ezoe, Noriyuki Sakemoto and Kota Fujimoto developed into solid contributors and the team gelled into an effective unit. Suddenly, after floundering badly since their title near-miss in 2000, Cerezo was once again playing like a title contender. For a few weeks in late 2005, it looked like the Flaming Pinks had put the years of mediocrity behind them, and were going to claim their first league title.

But it was not to be. On the final day of the season, Cerezo conceded a goal in injury time to tumble out of first place and miss their chance of glory. The heartbreak of falling just short of success in 2005 seemed to take its toll, both physically and emotionally, just as it had in 2000. For the next 12 months the team went through the worst slump in its history, culminating in relegation at the end of the 2006 season. To make matters worse, the veteran players who stuck with the team during its first stint in the J2 were unwilling to spend another year in the shadows. Nearly all of the big names, with the exception of Morishima (who was nearing retirement), decided to move elsewhere. The entire foundation of the team vanished, overnight, leaving only Morishima and a few other veterans to guide a collection of young, inexperienced kids from the Cerezo Youth ranks. This stint in the second division was going to be a much longer one.

The team struggled through the 2007 season, focusing mainly on the development of some promising teenagers like Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui and Yoichiro Kakitani, and the gradual development of a new core of players to carry the team through the next decade. Their fifth-place finish in the J2, in 2007, was not unexpected, but disappointing all the same. The rebuilding process continued for most of the 2008 season, but while the Flaming Pinks fell short of a promotion spot once again, finishing in fourth place, there were strong indications in the latter half of the season that Cerezo's careful rebuilding job was nearing completion. The dynamic teenagers who spearhead the offence had gained enough skill, confidence and personal maturity that captain Morishima -- now 36 years old and rarely able to make his presence felt on the pitch anymore -- was able to hand over the emotional leadership of the club to a new generation and announce his retirement.

Perhaps the symbolism of his retirement is appropriate in its timing, because there are clear signs that Cerezo is ready to enter a new era and hopefully rejoin the J1 at the end of the 2009 season. Of course, there will be plenty of competition. But looking at the main Japanese players who form the core of each J2 club, it is difficult to argue that any other J2 team is more competitive than Cerezo. It would help if the team can sign some foreign players who make more meaningful contributions; indeed, Cerezo has not had any real "star" foreigners since the Korean triad era, back at the turn of the century.

Nevertheless, even without any additions from overseas, the Flaming Pinks proved themselves a formidable competitor in 2008, when several of the team's main contributors were teenagers. As players like Kagawa, Inui and Kakitani matured, the team became increasingly competitive, and by 2009 they were ready to challenge for promotion. Their explosive start to the season left little question in anyone's mind that the team was ready to region the top-flight, and though they faltered down the stretch, finishing second to Vegalta Sendai, they secured a promotion spot with nearly a month left in the season. After a three-year sojourn in the nether regions, cherry blossom fans in Osaka finally had a chance to see their team blossom in the J1.

Cerezo's performance in 2010 was even more thrilling than the fans could have hoped. With a host of young stars like Kagawa, Akihiro Ienaga and Inui, as well as Kansai-area veterans like Ryuji Bando, the Flaming Pinks blazed through the competition with a degree of energy and enthusiasm that the Osaka area had not seen since the heyday of Morishima and Nishizawa. Kagawa was lured away to Europe, as most observers expected, but his midfield teammates stepped into the gap and helped Cerezo win even more matches in the second half of the season than they did when Kagawa was still in Osaka.  A late surge carried Cerezo into third place, and booked the team its first date ever with ACL opposition. Suddenly, Cherry Pink was the most popular color in Osaka, and the team bandwagon filled up with young fans, particularly teenage girls who seemed more interested in the pinup-style looks of some players than in the sport itself. These self-named "Cere-jo" ("jo" being the Japanese character for "girl") swelled attendances and attracted media interest from beyond the usual sports-related magazines and newspapers. 

Unfortunately, Cerezo's success (as well as the impressive performance in Germany of Shinji Kagawa) also attracted interest from overseas clubs, who scouted a number of the team's younger players. The first to follow Kagawa's footsteps to Europe, in the 2010-11 offseason, was Ienaga, who signed with Mallorca in Spain. Inui departed the following year and as he too proved successful in Germany, the outflow increased from a trickle to a flood. Though the team showed a bit more business savvy with later departures than they did when releasing Kagawa for a mere E350,000, most of the players who left Cerezo were worth far more than the team recouped from their sale. 

If the loss of Kagawa and Ienaga in 2011 left Cerezo a bit weaker in attacking midfield, the subsequent exit of Inui, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yoichiro Kakitani, Takumi Minamino, Ariajasuru Hasegawa and Hotaru Yamaguchi not only depleted the pool of talent; it also created a great deal of disruption. Cerezo probably believed they could use the money obtained from these deals to sign top international talent, and remain just as competitive (if not moreso). When the team announced the acquisition of Diego Forlan, in early 2014, most pundits and prognosticators thought that this was a very clever move.

But despite Forlan's obvious technical ability, he never managed to develop chemistry with his teammates, and at times, even seemed to be working at cross-purposes. Another famous international star -- Cacau -- was added in July, and his contributions were similarly dubious. Not only was there a clear lack of cohesion between the Japanese players and their high-priced foreign teammates; there was also a clear sense that youngsters like Kakitani and Minamino were more interested in attracting an offer from European scouts than they were in helping the team win matches. Cerezo suddenly found themselves on the brink of relegation, and despite a desperate flurry of effort in the final month of the season, the team could only recover to 16th place. Once again, the Flaming Pinks had to regroup at the Division Two level.

2015 started out fairly well, but despite a steady flow of victories, the team clearly lacked cohesion. Forlan departed in the summer, by mutual consent, saving Cerezo a large sum of money but depriving it of a real leader. By this tiime all the home-grown leaders had moved to Europe, and it was impossible to lure any domestic players away from a J1 team to join Cerezo in J2. The Flaming Pinks struggled across the finish line in fourth place, qualifying for the promotion playoffs, but they ended up losing a thrilling playoff battle to Avispa Fukuoka, and remaining in J2 for yet another season.

As the 2016 season dawned, fans of the Cherry Blossoms finally got a bit of good news, when Yoichiro Kakitani agreed to cut short his contract with Switzerland's FC Basel, and return to Osaka. He was soon joined by former Nurernburg and Hannover midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake. The team no longer had a bankroll big enough to sign a player like Forlan, but they did have enough left in the coffers to pick up some experienced talent including Kota Mizunuma, Toshiyuki Takagi and Atom Tanaka. Cerezo had finally recovered from the self-inflicted wounds that led to collapse in 2014. The Cherry Pinks reclaimed a J1 spot in 2017, bounding back all the way to third place. Thereafter, the team settled in around midtable.

In the increasingly competitive, increasingly commercial J.League, Cerezo Osaka can no longer afford to squander either young talent or hard currency. Fortunately for the Pink Wolfpack, their local rivals have all made similar mistakes in both personnel and marketing policies. But if Cerezo hopes to maintain a spot as one of the Kansai regional powers, they need to deliver some sort of payoff to their long-suffering fans. Vissel Kobe is now the most financially powerful club in the area, while Gamba continue to hold an edge in youth development. Cerezo will need to find some advantage of their own if they want to compete with these rivals, much less with the J1's top clubs.


Team Results for 1995-2001

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1995 (1st) 9 13   2   11 43 44 -1
1995 (2nd) 10 12   1   13 36 39 -3
1996 13 10   0   20 38 56 -18
1997 (1st) 11 6 0 1   9 21 26 -5
1997 (2nd) 8 7 1 1   7 32 30 2
1998 (1st) 9 7 1 0   9 36 47 -11
1998 (2nd) 13 7 0 0   10 20 32 -12
1999 (1st) 5 9 1   0 5 25 21 4
1999 (2nd) 5 6 3   0 6 39 24 15
2000 (1st) 2 9 1   0 5 34 25 9
2000 (2nd) 9 5 2   0 8 20 24 -4
2001 (1st) 4 3 0   2 10 22 31 -9
2001 (2nd) 16 2 3   0 10 19 39 -20

Team Results for 2002-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 (J2) 2 87  25 12 7 93 53 +40
2003 (1st) 5 25  8 1 6 29 29 +0
2003 (2nd) 12 15  4 3 8 26 27 -1
2004 (1st) 16 10 2 4 9 17 30 -13
2004 (2nd) 12 16  4 4 7 25 34 -9
2005 5 16 59 11 7 48 40 +8
2006 17 27 6 9 19 44 70 -26
2007 (J2) 5 80 24 8 16 72 55 +17
2008 (J2) 4 69 21 6 15 81 60 +21
2009 (J2) 2 104 31 11 9 100 53 +47
2010 3 61 17 10 7 58 32 +26
2011 12 43 11 10 13 67 53 +14
2012 14 42 11 9 14 47  53 -6
2013 59 16 11 7 53  32 +21
2014 17 31  7 10 17 36  48 -12
2015 (J2) 4 67 18 13 11 57 40 +17
2016 (J2) 4 78 23 9 10 62 46 +16
2017 3 63 19 6 9 65 43 +22
2018 7 50 13 11 10 39 38 +1
2019 5 59 18 5 11 39 25 +14

*Note: Data for pre-2002 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "golden goal" overtime