The All-Time J.League Best XIs

The 2012 J.League awards ceremony was held on 3 December, Hisato Sato, a number of his teammates and manager Hajime Moriyasu rightly honoured as one of the most impressive, inventive and attractive sides of recent years claimed the league title. The inclusion of a number of players in the 2012 J.League Best XI caused some surprise, however, not the least of which was Vegalta Sendai’s Wilson being named ahead of either Leandro or teammate Shingo Akamine. Nonetheless, with 2012 also being the 20th anniversary of the instigation of Japan’s professional football league, it is time to reflect upon the selection of those players who were considered the best in their positions for each of those twenty years, and devise an “All-Time Best XI” comprising exclusively Japanese players and a further wholly foreign team. Owing to the likelihood of a number of positions featuring players to have been included an equal number of times, certain tie-breaking criteria were determined as follows:

Number of Times in Best XI; If equal
Number of Times named MVP; If still equal
Number of Title Wins; If still equal
Player’s Regular Position

Looking to fill a dedicated Japanese team based purely on the greatest number of nominations to a Best XI, Seigo Narazaki’s inclusion on six separate occasions made the goalkeeping spot one of the simplest selections to make. Capped 77 times by the Samurai Blue before his retirement from international duty in 2010, his twelve year spell for Japan spanned selection for four FIFA World Cup squads, and he is also the only goalkeeper to have been named J.League MVP, honoured in 2010 having captained that year’s championship-winning Nagoya Grampus team.

(A collection of Seigo Narazaki’s saves from his 2010 MVP- and league-winning season, including an extraordinary reflex stop from Michihiro Yasuda’s deflected shot at 6:19)

Selection issues presented themselves in both defence and midfield. Just one full-back, Naoki Soma, had been included in the five defenders named to a Best XI four or more times. With neither the left-back Soma or Kashima Antlers colleague and centre-back Yutaka Akita landing the J.League MVP award, and with both having won the J.League title together on four occasions, the decision to exclude Akita was made solely on the basis of positional play.

Tulio Tanaka’s nine times inclusion in a Best XI the most of any defender, and an ever-present in the selection since 2004, guaranteed him a place in this all-Japanese side, and both Masami Ihara, until recently the most-capped Japanese international of all time and captain of the side for over a decade, and Yokohama F-Marinos’ Yuji Nakazawa, one of the four Samurai Blue to have reached 100 caps, completed the defensive line.

(Defender Masami Ihara scores from distance for Japan in a 6-0 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifier versus Sri Lanka held on 5 May 1993)

Gamba Osaka’s Yasuhito Endo recently eclipsed Ihara’s international appearance record, and despite the Suita side’s relegation he is almost certain to add to his current total of 124 caps. However, unless his transfer follows after over a decade at Banpaku, he will be unable to add to his record tenth consecutive year in a Best XI, nor will he able to add the elusive Most Valuable Player award to his list of accomplishments. Joining him is Mitsuo Ogasawara, a brief interlude at Italy’s Messina interrupting six J.League titles and the same number of Best XI nominations among the number of accolades garnered in fifteen years at Kashima Antlers.

(Jubilo Iwata Goalkeeper Arno van Zwam, the only foreign player to have been named to a J.League Best X1 in that position to date, starts to move the wrong way as Kashima Antlers’ Mitsuo Ogasawara bends a free-kick over the wall and into the bottom right corner. The golden goal, scored in the 100th minute of the second leg, handed Antlers the 2001 J.League title)

The third of five players across the midfield is Kawasaki Frontale stalwart Kengo Nakamura. The 32-year old hasn’t featured in a Best XI since 2010, but it was his inclusion for five consecutive seasons from 2006 which ensured his place in the side. Best XI results aside, surprisingly his is otherwise a record still to feature any major honours, a runners-up position in three league and two league cup campaigns between 2006 and 2009 the best he has to show for his efforts. Frontale finished no lower than fifth in the five years his performances were recognised, and after Naoki Soma was dimissed part-way through the 2012 season after a succession of poor results in the current year and last, the onus is on Yahiro Kazama to add some defensive steel to what is becoming one of the entertaining footballing teams in the division and help return Nakamura to his more lauded past.

The remaining two places are former Jubilo Iwata teammates who share 131 international caps between them, Hiroshi Nanami and Takashi Fukunishi. Excluding loan spells, Nanami spent close to thirteen years at the Yamaha Stadium, and within that period played in Serie A at Venezia, where he made 31 appearances, and J.League clubs Cerezo Osaka and Tokyo Verdy. Fukunishi, meanwhile, was only just outdone by his colleague, providing twelve years of service to the club, ending his career with a season at each of the two major Tokyo teams before retiring at the age of 32.

(Takashi Fukunishi, now of FC Tokyo scores the only goal of the match on 20 May 2007 against Yokohama F-Marinos. Club loyalties would count for little, however, as he went on to join Tokyo Verdy the following year, and was responsible for this brutal challenge on and punch at former club and international teammate Yasuyuki Konno in the 2nd of that season’s Tokyo derbies)

The sole striking position is taken by Masashi Nakayama, who announced his retirement from professional football at the age of 45 on 4 December 2012. The J.League’s all-time leading striker with 157 goals, adding to the 50 he scored at Jubilo Iwata forerunner Yamaha Motors FC, Nakayama claimed three J.League titles, the 1998 MVP award and the 1999 Asian Club Championship. The predecessor of the AFC Champions League tournament, Nakayama scored the winning goal in the final against Esteghlal in Tehran in front of a vociferous local crowd.

(Jubilo Iwata, via a 44th minute Masashi Nakayama header, go on to win the 1998-99 Asian Club Championship against locals Esteghlal in Tehran)

The All-Time Japanese J.League Best XI based on greatest number of selections:

J.League Japanese Best XI Based on Selection: Narazaki (Yokohama Flugels/Nagoya Grampus); Soma (Kashima Antlers), Nakazawa (Verdy Kawasaki/Yokohama F.Marinos), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Tanaka (Urawa Red Diamonds/Nagoya Grampus); Endo (Gamba Osaka), Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers); Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata)

J.League Japanese Best XI Based on Selection (4-5-1): Narazaki (Yokohama Flugels/Nagoya Grampus); Soma (Kashima Antlers), Nakazawa (Verdy Kawasaki/Yokohama F.Marinos), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Tanaka (Urawa Red Diamonds/Nagoya Grampus); Endo (Gamba Osaka), Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers); Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata)

For an all-Japanese side selected by position, the first consideration was the formation itself. A team containing four defenders has only ever featured twice. The first time was in 1995, then fourteen years later an all-Japanese back-line in the only all-Japanese Best XI to have been selected to date comprised Japan’s two current first-choice full-backs in Atsuto Uchida, then of Kashima Antlers, and Yuto Nagatomo, formerly of FC Tokyo. Daiki Iwamasa and Tulio Tanaka were selected as the central pairing. Perhaps partly a result of lingering Brazilian influence, with Dunga, Bismarck and Jorginho three players to leave a lasting legacy in Japanese football, featuring in the 1990 FIFA World Cup squad for which Sebastiao Lazaroni opted for three defenders, it has most frequently been the preferred choice of the Best XI, featuring in sixteen of the twenty line-ups. Five midfielders were in turn to be found in ten of those sixteen choices, necessitating a 3-5-2 as the formation.

With Narazaki reprising his role in goal, and Tulio Tanaka, Masami Ihara and Yuji Nakazawa completing the back-line, the only change was to assess which player would join Masashi Nakayama in the forward position. Kazuyoshi Miura, who won four consecutive national league titles including the first two J.League championships, outranked Atsushi Yanagisawa. The 35-year old striker, currently to be found at Vegalta Sendai, matched Miura’s three-time Best XI inclusion during spells at Kashima Antlers and Kyoto Sanga FC, but was discounted on the basis that he has to date never been named MVP. Miura, the first ever J.League MVP, and perhaps the most journeyed of any Japanese player at club level having played at sides in four continents, with time spent at Brazilian, Italian, Croatian and Australian teams to add to those domestically, continues to show a desire to play at 45 years of age having recently joined the Japanese national futsal team.

(Kazuyoshi Miura scores one and misses a penalty in Verdy Kawasaki’s 2-0 win against Kashima Antlers in the first leg of the 1993 J.League Championship final on 9 January 1994. A 1-1 draw a week later gave Verdy Kawasaki the inaugural J.League title)

Seigo Narazaki and Tulio Tanaka are the only two players to have been named to a Best XI on more than one occasion for two different teams, the goalkeeper recognised for his displays firstly at Yokohama Flugels before his move to Nagoya Grampus, and Tulio at Urawa Red Diamonds prior to joined Narazaki at the Mizuho Athletic Stadium.

The All-Time Japanese Best XI based on formation:

J.League Japanese Best XI Based on Formation: Narazaki (Yokohama Flugels/Nagoya Grampus); Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Nakazawa (Verdy Kawasaki/Yokohama F.Marinos), Tanaka (Urawa Red Diamonds/Nagoya Grampus); Endo (Gamba Osaka), Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers); Miura (Verdy Kawasaki), Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata)

J.League Japanese Best XI Based on Formation (3-5-2): Narazaki (Yokohama Flugels/Nagoya Grampus); Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Nakazawa (Verdy Kawasaki/Yokohama F.Marinos), Tanaka (Urawa Red Diamonds/Nagoya Grampus); Endo (Gamba Osaka), Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers); Miura (Verdy Kawasaki), Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata)

Using the same 3-5-2 formation, the all-foreign selection posed few selection problems. Only one non-Japanese goalkeeper has ever been chosen in a J.League Best XI, Dido Havenaar overlooked during his spell as a professional in the Nagoya Grampus goal in 1993 and 1994, and instead it is Jubilo’s former stopper Arno Van Swam, who played for the Iwata team between 2000 and 2003 before returning to his native Netherlands to play for NAC Breda, who received the honour in 2001.

The defence consists firstly of Guido Buchwald, included in a Best XI twice during his time at Urawa Red Diamonds. The German was an integral part of the victorious 2006 J.League team, part of a back-line which was scored against just 28 times in 34 league games, a total which remains the lowest conceded by any title-winning side since the change to a single-season, 18-club format in 2005. Pereira, the Brazilian defender who was named J.League MVP in 1994 and twice won the title during his four years at Verdy Kawasaki, a side which also included Kazuyoshi Miura and Bismarck, before helping Consadole Sapporo to their first promotion to the top-flight in winning the 1997 Japan Football League, and Dutra, selected on two occasions during his initial six-year spell at Yokohama F-Marinos before moving back to the Nissan Stadium in 2012, make up the two left- and right-sided positions in the back three.

(Guido Buchwald provides a headed assist for compatriate Bein, before playing a lovely one-two with his teammate returning the favour, sweeping the ball into the net during a 4-2 win versus Gamba Osaka in the 1995 J.League season)

One of three foreign players to have been named to a Best XI on three separate occasions, Bismarck is one of the five in midfield. Spending a total of ten years in the J.League at three separate clubs, at Verdy Kawasaki he won the first two professional league titles on offer in 1993 and 1994, before a move to Kashima Antlers for the 1997 season was followed by a further three titles between 1998 and 2001. Those five league titles are to date the most of any foreign player to have been named a J.League MVP.

Dunga is the first of two midfielders to have been selected twice for a Best XI, won the MVP award and at the present juncture to have won a single J.League title, the 1997 championship the only time he laid his hands on the trophy in his four seasons at Jubilo Iwata. Leandro Domingues, currently at Kashiwa Reysol, has the opportunity to surpass his more illustrious and garlanded compatriate in the coming years.

With the previous three midfielders the only foreigners to have been selected in their position in a Best XI more than once, it left a choice of seven Brazilians and the sole Colombian to have ever been selected for a Best XI, Grampus’s Danilson, for the two remaining slots. The MVP award proved decisive as a tie-breaker, making this an all-Brazilian midfield, Robson Ponte of Urawa Red Diamonds receiving the nomination in 2007, while Jorginho was looked upon equally favourably in 1996. Scheduled to leave as manager of Kashima Antlers at the conclusion of an undeniably disappointing season, he will likely view his playing time at the club more fondly where he won two J.League titles, an Emperor’s Cup and a league cup.

(A compilation of 2007 MVP Robson Ponte’s best moments of the 2005 J.League season for Urawa Red Diamonds)

Former player and current Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojković was the first of two forwards to be named three times to a Best XI, the Serbian one of three MVPs in total to have never won the J.League title as a player. Stojković bagged the award in 1995, but the closest he came to the trophy during his eight seasons on the pitch was as a runner-up the following season. The seventh and final Brazilian to make the All-Time Foreign XI is Emerson, and the final MVP to have never been a title winner during his time on the field. Named to a Best XI for three consecutive years from 2002, he has just the 2003 J.League Cup to show for his efforts, as his Urawa Red Diamonds side finished in second place in the league in 2004 and 2005.

The All-Time Foreign Best XI based on formation:

J.League Foreign Best XI Based on Formation (3-5-2): van Zwam (Jubilo Iwata); Dutra (Yokohama F-Marinos), Buchwald (Urawa Red Diamonds), Pereira (Verdy Kawasaki); Bismarck (Verdy Kawasaki/Kashima Antlers); Dunga (Jubilo Iwata), Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Robson Ponte (Urawa Red Diamonds); Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Emerson (Urawa Red Diamonds)

J.League Foreign Best XI Based on Formation (3-5-2): van Zwam (Jubilo Iwata); Dutra (Yokohama F-Marinos), Buchwald (Urawa Red Diamonds), Pereira (Verdy Kawasaki); Bismarck (Verdy Kawasaki/Kashima Antlers); Dunga (Jubilo Iwata), Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Robson Ponte (Urawa Red Diamonds); Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Emerson (Urawa Red Diamonds)

Sadly, a “mixed” All-Time XI using the 3-5-2 formation merely equated to the Japanese selection. Masashi Nakayama automatically assumed one of the striker positions, leaving Kazuyoshi Miura, Emerson and Stojković to have all been included three times in a Best XI and named MVP on a single occasion. Miura won on the tie-breaking criteria by dint of being the only one of the three to have won a league title as a player.

Furthermore, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima players comprising five of the 2012 Best XI, sharing the highest percentage of players named to a Best XI since the 2005 changes with Urawa Red Diamonds (2007) and Nagoya Grampus (2010), an assessment was made as to which club had provided the most appearances overall for a Best XI. This chart confirms that Kashima Antlers provides the greatest number of nominees:

Chart demonstrating the number of players per J.League club to have been selected for a Best XI.

Chart demonstrating the number of players per J.League club to have been selected for a Best XI since 1993

Of the 220 positions for 20 years of the J.League Best XI, there have been 126 individual players named to those spots, and broken down by nationality they are as follows:

Breakdown of players nominated to J.League Best XIs by Nationality since 1993

Breakdown of players nominated to J.League Best XIs by Nationality since 1993

Japanese players make up approximately 73% of the 126 players, with Brazil adding a further 19% to the total. The remaining 8% are players of nine different nationalities.

The final note concerns what is missing from the J.League Best XIs. Noticeable by their absence are many of the current first-choice national team players. While Eiji Kawashima played second fiddle to Seigo Narazaki for a number of years prior to his move to Lierse and more recently Standard Liège, a number of players have moved overseas to demonstrate their talents and further their careers before they have been recognised by the J.League’s own authorities. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida have never featured in a Best XI, while of Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagamoto, Atsuto Uchida, Makoto Hasebe and Hiroshi Kiyotake, only the Schalke full-back was included more than a single time. As the J.League continues to mature and develop, and the inability to retain technically gifted young talent grows, so will the possibility that Yasuhito Endo’s ten consecutive years in a Best XI will be a glaring exception for national team players, and one unlikely to be surpassed.

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