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Off The Beaten Path - Kashima Antlers

Soccer is the true sport of the world. No matter where you are and what time it is, there will always be a match you can catch. With the ever-expanding (and increasingly expensive) streaming coverage of leagues across the globe, it has allowed fans to latch on to teams and leagues that they may have never heard of before. Off The Beaten Path is a chance to highlight some of the Mint City Collective members' more unique squads they support. This week, Spenser Coop is taking us to the J.League in Japan to look at one of the titans of Asia - the Kashima Antlers.

 

 

I had saved up for two whole years to afford a trip to Japan in 2016. Anyone who has traveled to Japan can tell you it is not cheap, and you'll need to budget your trip way ahead of time. Just as important as booking a flight and getting a place to stay was to make sure I attended both a baseball game and a soccer match. I had zero familiarity with soccer in Japan. Still, I had to attend a game, so I laid out some guidelines on which match I would go to - could not be in Tokyo (I was staying in Tokyo, so I wanted to explore more of Japan), could not be in a dome, and the home team had to have some history. With that groundwork, I chose to attend the Kashima Antlers v. Ventforet Kofu match. Little did I know that this match set me off on an increased love of the game of soccer, but a fandom of the mighty Antlers.

 

Kashima Antlers Quick Facts

 

Team Name: Kashima Antlers (鹿島アントラーズ, Kashima Antorāzu)

Founded: 1947 (as Sumitomo Metal Factory Football Club)

Home Grounds: Kashima Soccer Stadium (Capacity 40,728)

Location: Kashima, Ibaraki in Japan

Owners: Mercari (Japanese e-commerce company) 61.6%, Nippon Steel Corp. (third-largest steel producer in the world based in Japan) 11%

Chairman: Fumiaki Koizumi

Manager: Naoki Soma

League: J1 League (top division of the J.League) 

Titles: 8-time J.League champion, 6-time YBC Levain Cup champion, 5 time Emperor's Cup champion, 1 time AFC Champions League champion

 

Brief History of the Club

The early modern history of soccer in Japan is unique as mostly all of the professional teams in the nation were company teams, meaning the players for clubs also worked at the factories/companies of the team. The Kashima Antlers started their life as Sumitomo Metal Factory Football Club, originally at Sumitomo's headquarters of Osaka, before moving to Kashima near one of their steel plants. Their history as Sumitomo Metal Factory FC mainly was unremarkable as a mediocre club mostly staying in the second division of the Japan soccer pyramid. It wasn't until 1991 that forever pushed the Antlers upward after the fateful signing of Brazilian Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico.

After a very brief retirement from playing, Sumitomo was able to sign Zico to play for their squad in a bid to join the upcoming new top league forming in 1993, the J.League. Zico transformed the club into a legitimate soccer power, bringing his knowledge and talent to a small club in a primarily unknown city. Once they joined the J.League, renamed the Kashima Antlers (Kashima translates to "Deer Island" as Kashima is home to the Kashima Jingu Shinto Shrine, which views the local deer as messengers of the gods), Zico and the squad began making their presence known. Zico scored a hat trick in a 5-0 victory over Nagoya Grampus in their first match in the league. Zico would retire as a player in 1994 but stayed with the club as Technical Director and even Manager of the club before leaving in 2000 to become the Manager for the Japanese Men's National Team in 2002. Zico returned as a Technical Director of the club once again in 2018. Zico forever revered as the "God of Football" (サッカーの神様, sakkā no kamisama) not only in Kashima but throughout all of Japan. The Antlers forever preserved Zico's legacy with the Antlers with a statue at the home grounds, and you'll be hard-pressed to miss a Zico tifo or banner at home matches.

Kashima has been a powerhouse of Japanese soccer since the formation of the J.League. From 1996 through 2002, the club won 4 league titles, 3 YBC Levain Cup (the Japanese equivalent of the Carabao Cup) titles, and 2 Emperor's Cup (the Japanese equivalent of the FA Cup) titles. In 2000, they were the first club to achieve the "treble" of winning all three domestic titles. More recently, the club nearly toppled the biggest of giants in 2016 when they lost to Real Madrid in extra time in the Club World Cup Final (losing 4-2). They were the first Asian club to reach the Club World Cup Final. In 2018, they finally claimed the AFC Champions League title to fill the last remaining Asian title they had yet to win. Since its inception, the Antlers remain one of the few clubs to never drop to the J2 League of the J.League.

Home Grounds - Kashima Soccer Stadium

Opening in 1993 and expanding in 2001, Kashima Soccer Stadium has been home to the Antlers. It currently holds up to 40,728 fans and is one of the more giant stadiums in Japan with a natural grass playing field. Tucked away near the Pacific Ocean, this massive stadium is just outside the central area of the small city of Kashima.

Kashima Soccer Stadium hosted 3 World Cup matches in 2002 during group play (a 1-0 Argentina victory over Nigeria, a 1-1 draw between Germany and Republic of Ireland, and a 2-1 upset victory of Croatia over Italy).

Many fans drive by car to the stadium, but it also has its own train station on the JR East Line. The station and the path to the stadium have not been upgraded since 2002 and show their age, but you can feel the energy as you make your approach while surrounded by trees.

Inside the stadium, the beautiful smells of Japanese street food stands and the sounds of taiko drums pregame provide a unique experience when taking in a match. The supporter section, always packed with passionate fans, always prepared with tifos and banners. After goals and victories, Kashima supporters sing The Beatles "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" in thrilling fashion. A very family-friendly atmosphere with fans of all ages enjoying soccer and growing the love of the game.

The Football Dream

While it remains challenging to watch and follow the J.League in the States, recent efforts to improve the international awareness of the league have been made. No streaming service provides coverage of J.League matches in the U.S., but the J.League official YouTube channel will offer occasional live matches but is very quick to upload match highlights of all games. Kashima is also one of the few clubs with English-specific social handles, though it is limited to lineups and match updates. 

If you are lucky enough to travel to Japan, I can not recommend enough for you to make the long train ride to catch a Kashima Antlers match. The titans of Japanese soccer always field a competitive team, and fans always come out strong to support their squad. If you are awake either very early or staying up extremely late, certainly check and see if the J.League YouTube channel is broadcasting a live match. J.League soccer is fast-paced, filled with action-packed matches with a great fan atmosphere. 

I fell in love with the fun and vibrant atmosphere at Kashima Soccer Stadium, the team's impressive play, and became engrossed in their history. I keep tabs on the team, watching highlights and hoping one day a streaming service picks up the J. League so I can once again have a coffee and watch soccer before the sun rises. The team slogan of "Football Dream" can be interpreted in many ways, but their Football Dream created my football passion. From a casual soccer fan to now watching every West Bromwich Albion match (a future Off The Beaten Path feature?) and counting down the days to Charlotte FC's first match.

 

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