Friday, 04 December 2020

 


Kawasaki Frontale has a long history, tracing its roots back to the Fujitsu company team, founded in 1955. The team enjoyed reasonable success in the JSL, and just barely missed being included in the J.League at its inception. Frontale hovered around the middle of the JFL table throughout the 1990s. In 1997, a year before the J.League second division was formed, the team received its full independence from Fujitsu, and took the name Kawasaki Frontale, qualifying it for inclusion in the J2. The ersatz-Italian name is supposed to mean "in the front" or "top class". Their mascot is similarly ersatz. At first nobody seemed to be exactly sure whether it is supposed to be a dolphin, a shark or a whale. It was not until the turn of the century that Frontale team literature clarified that "Fronta-kun" was, in fact, a dolphin, but nobody has ever provided a satisfactory explanation for why this mascot was chosen. Though Kawasaki does border the ocean (Tokyo Bay), it has only a short sea frontage and not much of a port compared with Yokohama or Tokyo. Kawasaki is much more closely associated with the major rivers flowing through the city (the Tamagawa and Kanagawa), which form the Northern, Eastern and Western borders, and with the many heavy industries that are located there.

Frontale finished second in the old JFL in its final season, 1998, and claimed the first league championship in the newly created J2, in 1999, along with promotion to J1 for the 2000 season. However this J2 championship is still the only trophy Frontale has ever managed to claim (it did win the J2 for a second time, in 2004). Throughout their professional existence, the Blue Dolphins have been the J.League's greatest heartbreakers - coming close to success time and time again, but never quite managing to win the big games. Its first stint in the top-flight division was short-lived: Kawasaki was the first J2 club ever promoted to J1, but it also became the first former-J2 club ever to be relegated back to the J2. In many ways, the team can plead hard luck for its poor success the first time around. Several key players were injured or otherwise incapacitated during that season, yet Frontale still managed to advance all the way to the final of the Nabisco Cup in 2000 before falling to Kashima Antlers. Nevertheless, it would still be fair to say that Frontale got promoted before they were really ready for it.

There were many reasons why the team failed to hold on in the top-flight division the first time around. One was the team's excessive dependence on young players, another the many injuries it suffered. But if you look at the subsequent development, it is clear that the team was not ready for prime time. For one thing, Kawasaki citizens had not yet adopted Frontale as their own. Until 2001, Kawasaki had another local club - Verdy Kawasaki (the forerunner of today's Tokyo Verdy) - which competed for fan loyalty and even shared the same stadium. Verdy did not do a particularly good job of marketing themselves to locals, and never had very solid "grassroots" support. Nevertheless, until Verdy relocated to Tokyo, Frontale had difficulty building its fan base due to a conflict of loyalties.

In addition, Frontale's mediocre finances forced them to rely on a small number of key players, sometimes with adverse results. For example, in 2001 Frontale acquired a young Brazilian named Emerson Marcio Passos from Consadole Sapporo, who led the J2 in scoring in both 2000 and 2001. With Emerson leading their strike force, Frontale got off to a very strong start in 2001, and seemed to be on their way to regaining a J1 spot. But midway through the season Emerson was lured away by the deep pockets of the Urawa Reds, and the sudden loss of their scoring leader set the team back for several months. When they finally recovered their pace, promotion was a vain hope.

Once it became clear that Frontale was not getting back to J1 immediately, many of the best players skipped town to find a spot on a J1 club. Furthermore, despite a steadily rising level of competition in J2, many of the Frontale youngsters seemed to stagnate or fail to live up to their early promise. Nevertheless, the team wisely refused to be discouraged by early setbacks. Rather than panic, or make ill-considered acquisitions in an effort to immediately make the jump quickly, Frontale set out to revive its fortunes by building a solid foundation - something that took more time than just signing a single high-scoring Brazilian striker. This strategy would pay off in the longer run.

The team began by working hard to win the loyalty of local fans. Sandwiched between two giant cities - Tokyo and Yokohama - Kawasaki did not have much of a local identity at first. This was one reason why Verdy opted to move to Tokyo. But careful efforts by the club to promote "Kawasaki Pride" began to take hold by 2003, and as the loyal fan base grew, so did Frontale's competitiveness. They were in the race for promotion until the final week of the 2003 season, when despite a victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the final match of the campaign, they finished in third place on goal difference. But once again the team shook off the disappointment, and set out in 2004 on a crusade to ensure that they would not be disappointed again. Both the team and its fans really came together in 2004, storming through their J2 campaign, crushing all competition in their path. It was no contest. Frontale clinched their second J2 title by late September, and coasted into J1 with almost two months to spare.

By the time Frontale finally made their way back into the top-flight, they faced much tougher competition than they had in 2000. But this time they had a much deeper roster, a solid and loyal fan base, good finances, and a more appropriate balance of youngsters and veterans. Their first trip to J1 may have been short-lived, but in the long run the return to J2 was probably for the best. It allowed the team to build a more solid base in its local community, develop the financial and organizational underpinnings to ensure that the team would remain in the top flight for many years, and cultivate a youth program and scouting network which would provide a strong flow of talented players into the roster in years to come.

Following an eighth place finish in 2005, Frontale fans knew that they had finally arrived as a J1 team. The next step for team was to move on to the next stage of development, and set its sights on winning some silverware. However, over the course of the next decade the team would earn a reputation as the most star-crossed team in the J-League, always capable of fighting their way into tile contention, but always choking at the final hurdle.

In 2006, the Blue Dolphins' stirring run to the top of the table, at the midpoint of the season, proved that the years spent in J2 had been well worth it. The team had developed a very balanced game plan, with several talented and high-powered strikers as well as a strong defence with by far the tallest back line in the League. A slump in September and October knocked them out of the running for the league title, but Frontale finished strongly and edged out Gamba to take second place. This performance was enough to earn them a spot in the Asian Champions League (since the first-place Urawa Reds already had secured a berth by winning the previous year's Emperor's Cup). In an effort to encourage even stronger fan support in 2007, the team went all out in the ACL, and managed to qualify for the knockout round one match prior to the Reds, thus becoming the first Japanese team to get past the knockout stage. This performance earned the team quite a bit of respect, and for the first time the football pundits were describing Frontale in the same breath with other title contenders like Gamba, Antlers and Reds.

Frontale's fifth-place finish in 2007 was slightly disappointing, but as history has shown, it is hard for any team to contest both the ACL and the domestic league title without running out of steam at the end of the year. In 2008, Frontale made some more adjustments to the squad, replacing some of the older players in central defence and bringing together what appeared to be the most formidable front line in J.League history. Veteran Brazilian Juninho, who had led the league in scoring in 2007, was joined by the young and physically dominant Givanildo "Hulk" de Souza, and the Japanese-born North Korean national Chong Tese, who was emerging as one of the international stars of Asian football. In reserve the team had former national team striker Kazuki Ganaha and the small but speedy Masaru Kurotsu. It looked like the Blue Dolphins were finally ready to make a splash.

But the hoped-for scenario failed to materialize. As so often happens in the J.League, multiple big-match players with inflated egos were unable to work together as a team. In fact, just two matches into the season a huge clash of egos in the locker room prompted Hulk to demand a trade to a different team. The stress was too much for the weak heart of coach Takashi Sekizuka, who had to be hospitalized in April and was eventually replaced as head coach by his assistant. Two months into the season Frontale were in complete disarray, languishing near the foot of the table, and with open animosity reigning in the locker room. Frontale was too good to fall apart completely. Once Hulk had been shipped off to Tokyo Verdy (where he created even more disarray, and eventually left to join Porto FC in Europe, in July), the team chemistry began to revive, and a late surge carried Frontale all the way to second place. This dramatic recovery instilled even greater confidence in the players, and certainly offered fans a lot of excitement, if not necessarily producing the payoff that they hoped for at the start of the season.

But 2009 would bring even more discouragement, and strengthen Frontale's reputation as a team that couldn't win the "big matches. They put on a solid showing early in the year, but they got slightly too ambitious, and as spring gave way to summer the players seemed to expend too much energy on the Asian Champions League. Frontale was eventually knocked out of the ACL, but by that time they had picked up several key injuries (of which the broken jaw sustained by playmaker Kengo Nakamura was probably the most serious) and the players were too fatigued to sustain their momentum in the final few weeks of the season. They not only recorded the team's third second-place finish in four years, but also lost a heartbreaking final match in the Nabisco Cup. Following this disappointing late-season collapse, coach Sekizuka finally retired for good, having failed to bring the team the success he had sought for so many years.

In 2010, despite the fairly high profile signing of Junichi Inamoto, who had just returned from Europe, Frontale were disrupted again at mid-season by the loss of both striker Chong Tese and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima moving to Europe. As a result, the team finished in fifth place - matching their weakest performance since 2005. This would be a sign of things to come... or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it was a sign that the team was running out of ideas, and had to start moving in a new direction. The following year, 2011, would produce the worst performance for a Frontale team since 2000, the year of their first promotion to the J1. Following their return to J2 in 2001, the team had steadily improved, or at least remained on an even keel, for a decade. Now, without the direction and focus that Sekizuka had provided, it looked like they be heading back to J2.

Fortunately, Frontale stuck with a consistent philosophy, pursuinmg the same tactical vision that Sekizuka had introduced, despite several more changes in leadership. Yahiro Kazama was appointed in 2012, but was unable to take Frontale to the peaks achieved in 2006 and 2008-09. Their horrendous luck continued; in 2015 their ace play-maker, Renato Ribeiro, defected in mid-season and scuttled what might have been a potential title bid. The following year they claimed a spot in the (J.League's last-ever) postseason playoffs, but lost to their historic nemesis Kashima Antlers, once again.

By this time, however, the team's steady cash flow combined with a clear strategy for tdeam development was starting to pay off. The Blue Dolphins had amassed a multitude of offensive weapons ranging from veteran strikers Hirouyuki Abe, Yoshito Okubo and Yu Kobayashi, to former Serie A striker Takayuki Morimoto, veteran field general Kengo Nakamura, and a player who may soon replace him in the Frontale engine room -- Japan Under 23 star Ryota Oshima.

After years of frustration and second-best finishes, the Blue Dolphins finally managed to put all the pieces together in 2017. Aided in part by a late-season slump at Kashima Antlers -- their main rival down the stretch -- Frontale managed to snatch first place away from the Antlers on the final day of the season. At long last, Kawasaki had a title trophy! The offensive punch and extensive experience of Kobayashi, Nakamura and Akihiro Ienaga, as well as the emergence of younger stars like Kei Chinen, Shogo Taniguchi and Hidemasa Morita, continued to pump in the goals, while Frontale's younger personnel entered the 2018 season with a level of confidence and ambition the team had never seen before. More than a few long-time J.League pundits cast doubts on the team's 2017 title, considering how many "lucky breaks" the team received from the Men in Black, over the final few weeks of the season. But there were no such caveats about Frontale's performance in 2018. The Blue Dolphins outpaced all competitors, and defended their J1 title for a second year.

Unfortunately, the marquee players who have led the team for over a decade are now nearing the end of their careers. Contributions from Nakamura, Kobayashi and Ienaga, in particular, dropped off sharply in 2019. Though their long wait for some silverware finally ended, it was already time for the Frontale front office to start rebuilding. A fourth-place finish suggests that the team is still capable of competing for silverware in 2020, but without some new blood the team will need to change the way they play. Perhaps a defensive focus can keep them in the mix this season, but more likely, the team will need to wait for youngsters like Taniguchi, Chinen, Ao Tanaka and Shintaro Kurumaya to mature, a bit, before they can resume their pursuit of championship glory.



Team Results for 1999-2004

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 1 20 5 3 8 69 34 +35
2000 (1st) 15 2 1 2 10 14 29 -15
2000 (2nd) 15 1 3 2 9 12 27 -15
2001 (J2) 7 17 3 3 21 69 60 +9
2002 (J2) 4 23   11 10 71 53 +18
2003 (J2) 3 24   13 7 88 47 +41
2004 (J2) 1 34   3 7 104 38 +66

Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2005 8 50 15 5 14 54 47 +7
2006 2 67 20 7 7 84 55 +29
2007 5 54 14 12 8 66 48 +18
2008 2 60 18 6 10 65 42 +23
2009 2 64 19 7 8 64 40 +24
2010 5 54 15 9 10 61 47 +14
2011 11 44 13 5 16 52 53 -1
2012 8 50 14 8 12 51 50 +1
2013 60 18 6 10 65 51 +14
2014 55 16 7 11 56 43 +13
2015 (1st) 30 9 3 5 32 26 +6
2015 (2nd) 27 8 6 30 22 +8
2016 (1st) 2 38 11 5 1 33 15 +18
2016 (2nd) 3 34 11 1 5 35 24 +11
2017 1 72 21 9 4 71 32 +39
2018 1 69 21 6 7 57 27 +30
2019 4 60 16 12 6 57 34 +23

 *Note: Data for pre-2005 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, as well as Frontale's promotion to J1