The Sakura have yet to win a trophy since joining the J-League but can boast a strong youth program that has produced many of Japan's hottest stars.
Unlike Gamba, whose front office and stadium are located in suburban Suita, Cerezo are based in Osaka City and supporters take pride in being the real “metropolitan Osakan” football club. In recent years the club has created a prolific youth system that has produced some of Japan’s top talents, many of whom now play in Europe.
Alas, Cerezo, who joined the J.League in 1995, are still to clinch their first title, and though they came close several times, their improbable stumbles on the final hurdle became legendary.
The first of their two most stunning defeats came on May 27 2000, when a loss in extra time against last-place Frontale cost Cerezo the first-stage championship and the right to play in the Championship Series.
The second came five years later on December 3, 2005. In the J.League’s first season using a single-stage format, five teams were in contention for the title on the last day of play. Cerezo needed a win at home to clinch the trophy, but a late goal gave visiting FC Tokyo a 2-2 draw and none other than rivals Gamba bagged the championship.
To add to the supporters’ anguish, Cerezo lost three Emperor’s Cup finals in 1994, 2001, and 2003.
The club have experienced two relegations, in 2001 and 2006. After bouncing back quickly from their first stint, Cerezo’s second stay in J2 lasted three seasons. They made a glorious return to the J1 in 2010, earning a spot in the following season’s AFC Champions League and unveiling a new generation of youth that have formed one of Japan’s most-respected clubs.
Cerezo's return to the ACL following a fourth-place finish in 2013, as well as the signing of Uruguay veteran Diego Forlan and emergence of national team players such as Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi, have thrust the Nagai Stadium residents into the international spotlight ahead of the 2014 season.
His team-mate, striker Akinori Nishizawa, also served his club and country with pride over their first 15 years in the J.League, including appearances at the 2002 World Cup and stints in Holland, Spain, and England’s top flights.
The Cerezo player known to most fans around the world, however, is none other than former Dortmund and current Manchester United player Shinji Kagawa. Just 19 years old when he was handed the No. 8 shirt by Morishima, Kagawa recorded 27 goals in the 2009 J2 season. Less than a year later he was off to Germany, where he won two Bundesliga titles under Jurgen Klopp.
Now a star, Kagawa fulfilled the dream held by many Japanese players when he became the first to play at Old Trafford, contributing to Sir Alex Ferguson’s last Premier League championship.
But he was far from the last Cerezo player of his generation to move to Europe, as a year later team-mate Takashi Inui would follow him to Germany, first with Bochum and presently at Eintracht Frankfurt.
In 2012, Hiroshi Kiyotake became the latest of Cerezo’s No. 8s to enter the Bundesliga, quickly earning a starting role with Nurnberg. The three Samurai Blue regulars are considered all but certain to represent Japan in the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
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