Think Jubilo and you think fallen giants. 'Road to Champion 2011' is the homepage banner on the club's official website, but Iwata haven't managed to get anywhere near that since they won both stages of the championship in 2002, finishing a mighty 16 points clear of Yokohama F. Marinos overall. Backed by Yamaha, initially marshalled by World Cup winner Dunga and inspired by the legacy of Hans Ooft, the first foreigner to coach the Japan national team, and the Italian forward Toto Schillachi, who wound down his career with 56 goals in 78 J.League appearances, the Shizuoka side lifted three titles, the League and Emperor's Cups and the Asian Club Championship in the space of seven seasons between 1997 and 2003.
At their peak, Jubilo had a squad packed with Japan international talent: Toshihiro Hattori, Hishori Nanami and Masashi Nakayama represented the Blue Samarai at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Nakayama scoring his country's first ever goal in the finals in a group stage game with Jamaica. Daisuke Oku and Toshiya Fujita won fifty caps between them, Naohiro Takahara scored 26 goals in a single season, played for Boca Juniors and made over 100 appearances in the Bundesliga with Hamburg and Eintracht Franfurt. His depature in 2002 marked the start of Iwata's decline, with a rapidly ageing squad slipping from runners-up in 2003 to ninth four years later. In 2008 Jubilo reached their nadir, narrowly edging out Vegalta Sendai in the last ever Promotion/Relegation Series thanks to a temporary comeback by Ooft and three goals from the otherwise unheralded Takuya Matsuura. "We'll do much better next season," the Dutchman promised. Masaaki Yanagishita returned for a second spell in a managerial job once briefly held by Luiz Filipe Scolari (the Brazilian replaced Ooft in 1997 but left for Palmeiras after just 11 games), and though his team have made it no higher than eleventh in each of the last two seasons, they scrapped their way to a first trophy in seven years with a 5-3 extra time win over Hiroshima in the 2010 J.League Cup final. Just as significantly, national team forward Ryoichi Maeda has finally emerged as a worthy successor to Takahara, 37 goals in two seasons earning him a pair of Golden Boot awards and a starting place in the Japan team which won this year's Asian Cup.
I take the train south from Nagoya, passing through the Brazilian belt of Toyohashi and Hamamatsu. When I get off at Iwata, the first thing I see are pale blue Jubilo flags: tied to the front of buses, lining the entrance to the station and propped in front of almost every shop on the half-hour walk to the ground, along with a Jubilo-branded vending machine, Jubilo posters - all, unsurprisingly, bearing a picture of Maeda - and even a Jubilo paving stone pointing the way to the Yamaha Stadium. Built at the end of the 1970s, the Yamaha's one of the more atmospheric grounds in Japan, its compact, running track-free design featuring a double-tiered home end, monolithic floodlights in all four corners and some impressively steep terracing, which I immediately head to the very top of. The travelling Kawasaki Frontale fans have filled one end of the pitch and a corner to the side, keeping themselves entertained with a lengthy display of synchronised bouncing. The home supporters respond by pumping their fists, clapping in time with a drum and twirling Brazilian flags and Jubilo scarves like helicopter rotor blades.
With Maeda missing, young forward Hidetaka Kanazano - scorer of an impressive 12 goals in his first J.League season - partners the popular Brazilian Gilsinho up front, but it's Kawasaki who draw the first reaction from the crowd for anything happening on the pitch, a ball turned round the two central defenders for striker Yu Kobayashi to chase, only for ex-Portsmouth keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to come storming off his line to clear. "Allez, allez, allez, Frontale!" trampolines nine tenths of the away end, still bobbing up and down when Gilsinho lashes in to the roof of the net on 16 minutes after keeper Rikihiro Sugiyama fumbles a high cross into a goalmouth crowded with blue shirts. With ex-Nagoya Grampus stalwart Masahiro Koga keeping Kobayashi as quiet as the Emirates Stadium it's left to Juninho, scorer of more than 200 goals for Frontale since arriving from Brazil eight years ago, to threaten Kawaguchi's goal, hooking a couple of metres wide after a game of up and under on the edge of the Jubilo penalty area. Off-balance, Yusuke Tasaka pushes the away side's only other chance of the half into the top deck of the stand as Jubilo, fleet-footed and tenacious in midfield, attack at will. Three minutes before the break Gilsinho adds a second goal, evading his marker at a corner kick and powering a header past Sugiyama. The Kawasaki fans bop out the rest of the half while Jubilo wave scarves and umbrellas and their team begins to showboat.
Frontale captain Yusuke Igawa replaces the youthful Yuki Saneto at the start of the second half as the away side immediately force Kawaguchi into action. Five minutes in the experienced keeper embarrassingly fluffs an easy catch from a left-wing corner and Juninho - a free agent next month - bundles in his ninth goal of the season. With their next attack full-back Yusuke Tanaka smashes the ball against the base of the post with Kawaguchi flailing and Jubilo, improbably, suddenly clinging on.
It takes the home side time to gather themselves, but when they do Sugiyama has to claw a Kanazono effort one-handed around the post and Daisuke Nasu slams a shot against a Yamaha hoarding to the side of the goal. It's the start of a breatless final third in which play lurches from one side of the pitch to the other like a pissed-up salaryman on a midnight pavement. The season ends with Gilsinho shielding the ball by a corner flag and Kashiwa Reysol clinching their first ever title with a 3-1 win in Urawa, bringing the curtain down on another thoroughly enjoyable year of J.League football.
Roll on next March.
Date: December 3rd 2011
Admission: 2,000 yen.