Saturday, October 16, 2010

J-League Profile: Kashima Antlers

As we wait for Barca to take on Valencia later today, and for DC United's dreadful Season From Hell to finally end, it might be fun to take a detour to the Land of the Rising Sun and look at the Kashima Antlers, the top club in the J-League.  Since its inception in 1993, the Japan League has emerged as one of the top association football leagues in the world, with an impressive number of foreign stars playing on Japanese teams, and the steady growth of native Japanese soccer talent.  Over the 17 year history of the J-League, the top team in the J-League has consistently been the Kashima Antlers.

Named after a pun on the word 'Kashima,' which means 'Deer Island,' since 1993 the Kashima Antlers have won pretty much everything there is to win in the world of Japanese soccer.  The Antlers have been J-League Champions an astonishing 7 times ( 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, 2009).  They have won the Emporer's Cup competition three times (1997, 2000, 2007); the J-League Cup three times in 1997, 2000, 2007 (open to clubs from all levels); and the Xerox Super Cup match between the J-League and Emporer's Cup champions no less than 5 times, in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2009, 2010.  With an astonishing total of 18 championships in 17 years, the Kashima Antlers may be the most successful soccer team in the world, that nobody in the west knows anything about.

Why has Kashima been so successful?  I believe it has to do with the strong ties between Kashima and Brazilian soccer.  Although like all Japanese teams Kashima is required to field a majority of Japanese players, the Antlers have also built a strong recruiting relationship with developmental clubs in Brazil, leading to an unusually high number of Brazilians playing in Japan.  Brazilian luminaries such as Zico, Leonardo, Bismarck, Bebeto, and current players Marquinhos and Gilton, have all played for this team, among many others.  The result has been the inculcation of the Brazilian "beautiful game" style of play, which has come to characterize the play of the Kashima Antlers.  Now that Zico is the head coach of the Japanese national team, the Kashima-Brazilian style has also come to characterize the Japanese national team (the 'Blue Samurai'), similar to the way that Johan Cryuff brought the Dutch style of 'Total Footbal' to FC Barcelona and, hence, the Spanish national team.

In my estimation the quality of play in the J-League is at least as good as in the American MLS, which means it is totally worth watching.  The top clubs in the J-League, such as the Kashima Antlers, are clearly world-class sides which can compete anywhere.  Maybe one day some of these Japanese teams will come to play against the best that the MLS has to offer.  I would totally buy a ticket to see DC United against the Kashima Antlers, for example.

Considering how badly United is playing this season, right now I'd have to pick Kashima to win that match.