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Thursday, March 19, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Golden age becomes a distant memory for jaded Jubilo


While Kashima Antlers' start to the new J. League season has not been as imperious as it was shaping up to be, the Ibaraki club's troubles are nothing compared to those facing old rival Jubilo Iwata.

Andrew McKirdy

Jubilo, one of Japan's most storied clubs and a three-time J. League champion, began the season with a 6-2 home defeat to a Montedio Yamagata side playing its first-ever match in J1, before going down 4-1 to Gamba Osaka the following week.

News photo
Pale imitation: Former J. League powerhouse Jubilo Iwata (in blue) has looked a shadow of its former self in recent years. KYODO PHOTO

Jubilo's hopes were not high after escaping relegation by the skin of its teeth last year, but such a shocking start to the new campaign has exposed just how deep the problems run.

The Shizuoka side has looked short of composure, short of vitality, and seriously short of confidence. It is in times like these that younger players turn to experienced heads for leadership, but the psychological consequences of goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi — a man with 116 international caps to his name — letting Leandro's shot dribble through his fingers for Gamba's fourth goal could be catastrophic.

The importance of getting the season off to a good start cannot be overstated, but with Urawa Reds to come on Saturday, Jubilo must already be bracing for a long, hard year.

It has not always been this way. Jubilo's rivalry with Kashima in the late '90s and early '00s firmly established the two clubs as the league's powerhouses, so much so that only three players from outside the duopoly appeared in the J. League team of the season in 2001 and 2002.

Both clubs began to fade as first Yokohama F. Marinos, then Gamba Osaka and Reds mounted a fresh challenge for superiority. But while Kashima has hauled itself back to the summit, Jubilo has continued to drift.

Kashima's recent success has been achieved by bringing in new blood gradually, continuously and sensibly, and it is this sense of evolution that Jubilo has found difficult to grasp.

The club wore its golden generation until it had been chipped down to the last few flecks, and the brief return of talismanic midfielder Hiroshi Nanami and manager Hans Ooft last season suggested inspiration had well and truly dried up.

Shizuoka is known for being the cradle of Japanese soccer, and Jubilo's heyday was fueled by local talent such as Nanami, Naohiro Takahara, Takashi Fukunishi, Toshihiro Hattori and Masashi Nakayama.

But while good players in the prefecture have always been plentiful enough to export around the country, it is noticeable that the cream of today's crop — Keita Suzuki, Atsuto Uchida and Makoto Hasebe — have all made their careers elsewhere.

The club's failure to attract quality youngsters has now been further compromised by the rise of its Tokai rivals.

Shimizu S-Pulse and Nagoya Grampus are both teams on the rise, and managers Kenta Hasegawa and Dragan Stojkovic provide the name brand that Jubilo cannot match after years of blundering through a factory line of anonymous and unsuccessful leaders.

What the club would give to have Dunga back now.

Of course only two games into a new season is not the time to be writing a team's obituary, and Jubilo certainly has the personnel to turn the corner.

But the warning signs have now been firmly put in place. If Jubilo cannot halt the slide before things get really serious, the glory days will seem further away than ever.



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