The Ibaraki club have risen from obscurity to become the J-League's most accomplished side, with 21 titles to their name.
It is ironic that when they applied for J.League membership in 1991, club officials were told that their chances of acceptance were as low as “0.0001%.” Supported by an incredible local community, they did join the league and were motivated by one of the earlier “greats” of J.League football history: Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico.
Zico was the first player to score a hat-trick in J.League on May 16th 1993; and in the same year he led his team to victory in the first stage of the championship. Although Antlers lost the finals to Verdy Kawasaki, they imposed themselves as a ‘top club’ from the very beginning, finally clinching their first championship in 1996.
From 1997 to 2002, Antlers claimed another 11 trophies. In these years, they also provided several players to Japan’s national team and saw their stadium, the country’s first football-only structure, upgraded for the 2002 World Cup.
Their “dark ages” lasted from 2003 until 2006, during which they were rarely competitive and bowed to new rising powers such as Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds.
From 2007, however, Antlers returned to their former glory; since that season they have never gone a year without claiming at least one title. After the league championship three-peat of 2007-2009 came an Emperor’s Cup in 2010 and two Yamazaki Nabisco Cups in 2011 and 2012 -- plus two Xerox Supercups in 2009 and 2010.
As one of the many Japanese clubs inspired by Brazilian football, Antlers have been managed by several former Brazilian top players: besides Zico, top-caliber names such as Cerezo, Edu and Jorginho sat on their bench. Their most victorious coach was however another carioca, Oswaldo Oliveira, who steered the club from 2007 through 2011.
Though Antlers have never been a continental powerhouse, one statistic stands as a testimony of their might in Japan: until of 2012, when they ended 11th, Antlers had never finished in the bottom half of the table in their 20 seasons. They were unable to win any major trophies in 2013 (finishing in fifth place), but did successfully defend the Suruga Bank Championship with a 3-2 win over Brazilian club Sao Paulo.
Known as one of the best defenders of his generation, Yutaka Akita spent a decade at Antlers and would also represent Japan at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. He was known on the pitch for his fantastic control in the air and off the pitch for his strict diet and training regimen.
Team-mate and former Brazil international Bismarck, who spent the majority of his career in Japan, played in Kashima from 1997 to 2001, including contributing to Antlers’ treble-winning 2000 squad. Following his last appearance for the team in the second leg of the 2001 Championship Series, match officials stopped to shake his hand when he was substituted out.
After joining Antlers in 1992, midfielder Yasuto Honda called Kashima Stadium home for 15 years before his retirement. His physical and dynamic play frequently frustrated opponents and he was a key part of the club’s golden generation.
A life-long ‘No. 13’, striker Atsushi Yanagisawa spent over a decade with Antlers that included two and a half seasons in Serie A with Sampdoria and Messina. The former Japan international has scored in 16 J1 seasons, a league record.
His team-mate Mitsuo Ogasawara also played at Messina for a short loan, but other than that has remained a loyal Antlers player with nearly 400 league appearances since 1998.
Yuya Osako spent five saesons with Antlers; the 23-year-old striker scored the winning goal in the 2011 Nabisco Cup final and finally had his breakout season in 2013 with 19 goals from 33 appearances. His appearances for Japan in the 2013 East Asian Cup and friendlies against Netherlands and Belgium garnered attention from European schouts, leading the Kagoshima native to join Bundesliga.2 outfit 1860 Munich in January 2014.
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