The history of Cerezo Osaka is characterized by “tragedies.” Although their predecessor Yanmar Diesel Soccer Club was one of the most important clubs in Japanese football, Cerezo had never won the title since they were founded in 1993. Actually, some chances came within their reach but they failed to win it. One of those cases happened in 2000 when they were beaten by Kawasaki Frontale and couldn’t win the league – so-called the Tragedy of Nagai. Two men who then were the key players of the team are at the heart of the club now, although in different roles.
Hiroaki Morishima is a club legend. He is a great one-club man who spent all of his player career at Yanmar/Cerezo. Even after he retired from professional football, he stayed at the club as an ambassador, and joined the club’s division for the team reinforcement last year. He was appointed as the head of the Football Operation Group this year.
This year, he, along with the GM and former manager Kiyoshi Okuma, brought a well-known figure among the supporters back to the team: Yoon Jong-Hwan. The former South Korean international was also standing on the pitch in the 2000 match against Kawasaki. Yoon successfully started his managerial career at Sagan Tosu but somehow was fired in 2014. After he spent two years in his home country to manage Ulsan Hyundai, he returned to the club as the first former player for Cerezo who takes charge of the team.
In Japan, Yoon is known for hard training. Probably less known is that his purpose is not to just have the players train hard, but to create discipline within the team and improve their mental strength through it. Yoon knew what was necessary for Cerezo very well. That might also be what the team, including Yoon himself, lacked in 2000.
Years passed and Cerezo got to be known for developing good youngsters. Many young players, such as Shinji Kagawa and Yoichiro Kakitani to name a few, were developed greatly and flourished. Some of them left the team and spent a successful career in Europe, some of them came back to the team for different reasons. Hiroshi Kiyotake is one of the latter case. Cerezo paid a lot of money and successfully re-signed him with an assistance from Yanmar. Kiyotake explicitly thanked the club and the company and promised to help the team win the title. Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Yusuke Maruhashi, Kenyu Sugimoto… these academy-grown players reached their mid-20s and are approaching to the peak of their career.
Not just academy-grown players. Experienced players like Teruyuki Moniwa, Noriyuki Sakemoto, and Kota Fujimoto have supported the team whether or not they can appear in the game. Important players such as Kim Jin-Hyeon didn’t choose to leave and decided to stay even when the team was in a difficult situation. New players like Riku Matsuda, Kota Mizunuma, Takaki Fukumitsu, and Matej Jonjic have also greatly contributed to the team.
With these efforts by every single player, Cerezo have demonstrated an unexpectedly good performance this season. Considering they just returned from the second division this year, showing a good performance and being placed in the middle of the league table might have been satisfiable, but the players weren’t thinking so. The “Levain Team” captained by another academy-grown player Daichi Akiyama, mainly consisted of players who get few playing opportunities in the league, proved themselves in the cup games and brought the team to the league cup final for the first time. And in the final, with goals from Kenyu Sugimoto and Souza, Cerezo finally grabbed their first title. But as some players reminded themselves after the game, this is not the end but the beginning. Further hard work is needed for the team to avoid becoming a “roller-coaster club” again and evolve into a top club.
First I got interested in Cerezo was when Belgian manager René Desayere was managing the team in 1999. It’s not that I have always been an enthusiastic supporter since then, but I was really speechless to see the players holding up the cup for the first time. I also became emotional when I saw Morishi and Yoon doing it. It took minutes or even hours to completely understand the situation (but it took a few days to write this post just because I am lazy). What a great feeling to win the title! I really want to thank and congratulate everyone involved with Cerezo and hope we can see the same thing again in the near future – hopefully on the first day of the next year.