Wednesday, 02 December 2020

 


Gamba Osaka was one of the original ten teams that founded the J.League in 1993, but despite considerable financial backing, for the first decade or so of its history the team saw no real success. Osaka - long a hotbed of support for baseball - took some time to develop an interest in The Beautiful Game. While their performances on the pitch were modest, and their attendances very weak by comparison to the Tokyo-based clubs, Gamba did a good job of laying the groundwork for future success, by developing one of the top youth programmes in the country. Since the turn of the century, this effort has paid off. Today, Gamba has become one of the J.League's elite, winning league titles in 2005 and 2014, as well as an Asian Champions League title under coach Akira Nishino, in 2008.

Gamba got its start in 1980 as the company team of Matsushita Electric. By 1986, Matsushita's football club had worked its way up into the first division of the Japan Soccer League, and, by the end of the 1980s, the team had reached a plateau of success, winning the Emperor's Cup and finishing high in the league rankings for several years in a row. The consistent run of form over the final decade of the JSL's existence earned Matsushita Electric a spot in the J.League for its inaugural season.

When the team entered the J.League, the club adopted the name "Gamba", which is a shortened version of the Japanese word "Gambare" or "fight!" -- a word often shouted at players from the bench for encouragement, which could be equated to "Vamos" in Spanish or "Forza" in Italian. In the first few years of J.League play, Gamba languished near the bottom of the table, however, in 1997, the team received a huge boost when the talented Cameroonian Patrick Mboma arrived to become Japan's first, and by far its most well-known African player. Mboma's blazing speed and scoring prowess gave the team a huge boost, carrying Gamba to second place in the 1997 2nd stage. Unfortunately, Mboma did not have enough of a supporting cast to carry the team over the final hurdle, and Gamba watched in despair as Jubilo Iwata snatched the 2nd stage title from their grasp. Mboma's departure in 1998 saw the team drop back into the lower reaches of the league table.

Apart from the brief interlude when Mboma was providing goals, Gamba earned a reputation for having a formidable defence, but languished because of its lack of scoring punch. In the early years of the new century, however, manager Akira Nishino reorganized the team around his own highly ambitious football philosophy. The team adopted a three-pronged attack (in the initial year it featured Masashi Oguro and Brazilians, Araujo and Fernandinho), and a more fluid, counter-attacking style. The change of strategy cost them their reputation for defensive solidity, as the team gave up more goals than any of the top ten teams. It took several attempts to finally claim the first title for a team from the Kansai area, and even then, Gamba almost missed out on this milestone. It took a last-minute goal on the final day of the 2005 season - a story in its own right covered in JSoccer Magazine - to pip their cross-town rivals Cerezo at the post.

Unfortunately, the success of that season was difficult to replicate. Perhaps in part due to the high reliance upon attacking, Gamba produced a number of high-scoring strikers in the following seasons. While this might seem like a good thing, many of the players have used their statistics as a tool to launch a career move to another club. The likes of Magno Alves, Bare, Leandro and Adriano to name but four, all moved on to more lucrative salaries elsewhere. While Gamba have done a good job of bringing in replacements, the constant turnover often affected the team's balance. In both 2006 and 2007, the strike force did not score enough goals to offset the team's defensive weakness, and as a result, Gamba fell short of another league title. In 2008, Bare's departure mid-season ruined the team's carefully considered strategy for contesting both the league title and the Asian Champions League. Though Gamba did manage to claim that Asian crown, they tumbled to eighth place in the league table.

While the heavy turnover and lack of a good stream of ticket revenues, relative to other "big teams", held the team back, Gamba could always depend on a steady stream of talented newcomers, thanks to one of the league's best youth programmes. The Gamba youth system has turned out dozens of top J.League stars and new faces continue to appear every year. (With their Under 23 team in J3 this season, more youngsters are getting much-needed experience and breaking into the 1st XI). This young talent, combined with the savvy coaching skills of Nishino, kept Gamba in the race, but once again in 2009, the club seemed to put "too much" emphasis on ACL play, and consequently did not have the stamina to stay in the league title chase until the very end.

2010 posed the same old challenges for Gamba, as they struggled to balance the demands of ACL participation with the effort to pursue the domestic league title. The team's core members were aging, and despite an influx of talent from the vaunted Gamba youth programme, the team simply didn't have the depth or the energy to chase both targets. This has become a recurring theme for Gamba, and for other Japanese teams in the ACL over the years. As past history has demonstrated, teams that chase two prizes often end up with none. Gamba proved this point convincingly in 2010, by advancing to the late stages of every one of the competitions, yet failing to claim a single piece of silverware. On a positive note, however, the mid-season departure of Brazilian ace Pedro Junior allowed two very talented and promising youngsters - Shoki Hirai and Takashi Usami - to establish themselves as key contributors and potential future stars.

After a half-decade of modest success, mixed with minor disappointment, Gamba Osaka reached a crossroads in 2011. Nishino, after steering the team for ten years, announced that it was his last season as Gamba head coach. Many of the players who formed the core of his team throughout his tenure also were given reduced roles, transferred to clubs that needed veteran leadership, or began to consider retirement. Even optimistic fans expected the 2012 season to be a disappointing lull, as the baton was passed to a new generation, but few anticipated the total debacle that followed Nishino's departure!

The season began with no real signs of trouble. Jose Carlos Serrao, an experienced albeit aging Brazilian coach with a reputation for competence at several smaller Sao-Paulo-area clubs, was the "official" head coach while naturalized Brazilian and former Japan NT player Wagner Lopes was his assistant, and, presumably the coach-in-waiting, once he got his Japanese license. Perhaps the unclear chain of command caused problems, or perhaps there was internal friction between Lopes and some of the older Gamba players. Whatever the case, a team that once was regularly among the top J1 contenders suddenly seemed unsure of itself. After a run of six losses (league and ACL), coach Serrao was sacked, as was Lopes. The coaching reins were passed to former Gamba striker Masanobu Matsunami, but he was unable to pull the team out of the tailspin either. To the shock of everyone, inside and outside the organization alike, the team plunged down the table and ended up relegated.

In retrospect, the trip to J2 was probably just what Gamba needed to sweep away all memories of the Nishino era and allow the team to start on a fresh base. A few veterans, such as Takahiro Futagawa and Yasuhito Endo, stuck around but most of the remaining old guard were released, whereas team regulars under the age of 25 were convinced to stay. The head coaching job was handed to Kenta Hasegawa, a highly respected manager who spent six seasons coaching at Shimizu S-Pulse, and who knew the J.League inside and out. Hasegawa had an entire year to restructure the team to match his own preferences, and fine-tune his strategies against relatively weak competition in the second tier. Just as importantly, the younger players had a chance to get plenty of experience under their belts, and develop a habit of winning, before they ever faced competition that was their equal in terms of sheer talent and technical skill.

Thus, when Gamba returned to J1 in 2014, they did so as a well-oiled machine, ready to take on even the strongest of opponents. Some would say that they also benefited from the weaknesses of their main rivals. Urawa Reds got off to a strong start and were in a dominant position mid-season, but as Reds so often do, they let internal dissension and poor chemistry trip them up at the pointy end of the season. Gamba won a critical match away, at Urawa's home of Saitama Stadium, with three matches to go, and that carried them to the title. The momentum spilled over into the Emperor's Cup campaign as well, and when New Year's Day 2015 arrived, Gamba had secured the league title and both cups - the only team other than Kashima Antlers to have completed this treble of success.

After such a successful treble-winning season, 2015 was relatively disappointing for Gamba. Despite a strong showing in all three competitions, they succumbed to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the League Championship Play-Offs and to Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup. Though they did retain their Emperor's Cup trophy, there were already signs that Gamba's golden era was nearing an end. Most observers pointed out the advancing age of key players, as well as the loss of talent to Europe (Usami in 2016, Ritsu Doan in 2017 and Yosuke Ideguchi in 2018), would force Gamba to begin the change of generations. Instead, the front office seemed to be overly occupied with construction of a new stadium and petty rivalries with Cerezo. It would be three more years before Gamba asked oldtimers like Yasuyuki Endo, Yasuyuki Konno, Jungo Fujimoto and Shu Kurata to begin considering new clubs. While rivals such as Kashima, Consadole, Marinos and FC Tokyo were aggressively blooding new talent, Gamba seemed mired in nostalgia

That is not to say Gamba lacks new blood. Several players who have come up in the past 2-3 years -- Takahiro Ko, Keito Nakamura, Ryotaro Meshino and more -- deserve the chance to start regularly. Unfortunately, it seems that coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto still puts his faith in former teammates, rather than youngsters, Over the next year or two it will be interesting to see if the Gamba Boys can negotiate the change of generations. The team has plenty of resources to draw upon, with their vaunted youth system and a larger cash flow now that they have moved to a new home stadium. But without clearer direction and a willingness to move on from their successful past, the prospects are uncertain.



Team Results for 1993-2004

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 8 8       10 27 31 -4
1993 (2nd) 6 8       10 24 34 -10
1994 (1st) 10 7       15 37 46 -9
1994 (2nd) 10 8       14 29 36 -7
1995 (1st) 11 10   1   15 49 54 -5
1995 (2nd) 13 8   2   16 38 53 -15
1996 12 11   0   19 38 59 -21
1997 (1st) 8 8 0 0   8 28 23 5
1997 (2nd) 2 10 2 0   4 38 23 15
1998 (1st) 14 4 2 1   10 27 29 -2
1998 (2nd) 16 3 2 0   12 20 32 -12
1999 (1st) 10 5 1   0 9 21 25 -4
1999 (2nd) 13 4 1   1 9 15 21 -6
2000 (1st) 13 5 0   2 8 20 23 -3
2000 (2nd) 4 8 2   0 5 27 20 7
2001 (1st) 5 7 2   0 6 29 22 +7
2001 (2nd) 11 5 0   2 8 21 26 -5
2002 (1st) 4 8 1   1 5 35 19 +16
2002 (2nd) 2 7 3   0 5 24 13 +11

Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 12 16  4 4 7 26 29 -3
2003 (2nd) 7 23  6 5 4 24 17 +7
2004 (1st) 4 24  7 3 5 31 23 +8
2004 (2nd) 3 27  8 3 4 38 25 +13
2005 1 60 18 6 10 82 58 +24
2006 3 66 20 6 8 80 48 +32
2007 3 67 19 10 5 71 37 +34
2008 8 50 14 8 12 46 49 -3
2009 3 60 18 6 10 62 44 +18
2010 2 62 18 8 8 65 44 +21
2011 3 70 21 7 6 78 51 +27
2012 17 38 9 11 14 67 65 +2
2013 (J2) 1 87 25 12 5 99 46 +53
2014 63 19 6 9 59 31 +29
2015 (1st) 4 32 9 5 3 24 13 +11
2015 (2nd) 3 31 9 4 4 32 24 +8
2016 (1st) 6 24 7 3 7 22 20 +2
2016 (2nd) 4 34 10 4 3 31 22 +9
2017 10 43 11 10 13 48 41 +7
2018 9 48 14 6 14 41 46 -5
2019 7 47 12 11 11 54 48 +6

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to a eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime