It is a highly anticipated clash between international high-flying Cerezo, who are participating in the AFC Champions League, and Gamba, the former league and Asian champions who experienced their first relegation in 2012.
“Everyone understands that the Osaka derby is special,” Cerezo president Masao Okano told Goal. “Because of the renaming [from Nagai Stadium to Yanmar Stadium Nagai] we’re under pressure to win, especially against Gamba.
“The game has sold out, so I hope we can firmly establish Cerezo’s presence in this city in front of over 40,000 fans.”
This year marks Cerezo’s 20th anniversary, but the club’s history extends much further. Founded as Yanmar Diesel FC in 1957, the team won four league titles and three Emperor’s Cups before turning professional.
“All of the players went to work in the morning and practiced in the afternoon,” added Okano.
“The great thing about company sports is that there’s a strong feeling of fellowship with the players. Back then, even the top teams in Japan practiced on dirt fields that weren’t regulation size. Unlike today, the players were more relaxed; they drank as well.”
From Kunishige Kamamoto, known as Japan’s greatest striker of all time, to technical ace Daishiro Yoshimura, Yanmar’s success was defined by their stars.
“Their strength, technique, and mentality were all professional,” said Okano. “You wonder how those two would do at their peak with Cerezo in the modern J-League.
“Imagine Kamamoto playing as the top striker, or Yoichiro Kakitani breaking through the back line and picking up a through pass from Yoshimura. You get excited just thinking about it."
The team’s name comes from the Spanish word for cherry blossom, the official flower of Osaka City. The signing of 2010 World Cup MVP Diego Forlan and their 2013 friendly against Manchester United are just the start of Cerezo’s efforts to make their trademark pink uniforms known worldwide.
“2012 was Yanmar’s 100th anniversary, so in 2013 we decided to kick-start the next century by doing something special to promote the brand globally,” Okano elaborates.
“After becoming Manchester United’s sponsor, we conceived this match to further Yanmar’s reputation as a premium brand.”
Shinji Kagawa’s presence in the sold-out 2-2 draw was a reminder of Cerezo’s numerous contributions to some of Europe’s top clubs. 'Cerezo-bred' is considered a mark of quality among Japan internationals and the bond between the club and their former players remains strong.
“When Kagawa, [Takeshi] Inui, and [Hiroshi] Kiyotake finish their season, they always return to Japan and visit Cerezo’s training ground,” Okano says.
“We want to continue our deep relationship with players like these, so that one day if they return to the J-League they’ll want to play for Cerezo again.”
The face of Cerezo in their first professional season was undoubtedly Hiroaki Morishima. After joining Yanmar in 1991, he stayed with the club for 17 years. Remembered fondly nationwide for his goal against Tunisia at Nagai Stadium during the 2002 World Cup, the No.8 he wore until his retirement has been worn by successive Cerezo aces.
“I received the No.8 by chance, and the players who have worn it since have made it even bigger,” Morishima enthuses. “Shinji [Kagawa], [Hiroshi] Kiyo[take], Yoichiro [Kakitani]. Their efforts have made the No.8 mean as much as it does to Cerezo.
Twenty-four-year-old Kakitani inherited that very shirt in 2013 before making his international debut later that summer.
“Yoichiro is a symbol of Cerezo’s appeal,” says Morishima, now an ambassador for the club. “Without performances like that, the number wouldn’t matter as much as it does."
Kakitani, who appeared in both 2012 derbies, is looking for his first goal of the season against Gamba on Saturday.
“I’ve only played in two derbies so far, but all the football fans in Osaka watch it,” he explains. “As rivals, as Japanese, as players who want to make the J-League more exciting, I want to make it a great match.”