Cerezo Osaka became a global centre of attention last pre-season when they signed former Manchester United forward Diego Forlan.
The club, known for exporting internationals such as Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui and Hiroshi Kiyotake to Europe, is now asserting its presence as the J-League’s leading importer.
In addition to Uruguay legend Forlan, Cerezo’s roster also boasts players from Australia, South Korea and Serbia - and a Serbia-born Austrian manager in Ranko Popovic.
Few other clubs in the J-League’s 21 years could match Cerezo’s international flavour which, as club president Masao Okano revealed, is part of a greater strategy.
The club’s first big target was AC Milan attacker Kaka. "We didn’t have any globally-known players who would draw international fans," Okano explains. "Of course we’re proud of Shinji Kagawa’s accomplishments at Manchester United, but he deserves the credit for that, not us.
"We want our players to be inspired to go overseas and become bigger than Kagawa, so the hope was to find a big player who could help to inspire their development."
The club’s offer to Kaka fell flat as the player still held hopes of a World Cup appearance for Brazil. Other stars responded similarly, afraid that a January move to Japan would put their national team standing at risk.
Despite Kaka’s rejection, Okano was not discouraged. “It would have been one thing if we filled our stadium regularly, but that wasn’t happening,” he recalls. “In Europe fans turn the entire matchday into a special occasion, but in Japan they’re all about the 90 minutes of the match, which is one concern about the J-League.
“It’s difficult to change the way Japanese people act, so instead I thought about making those 90 minutes interesting so fans could enjoy that time.”
But Cerezo needed a big-name star. They found him in August 2013, when Japan hosted Uruguay at Miyagi Stadium. The 34-year-old Forlan stood out as a player on a different level, inspiring the club to undertake their greatest challenge yet.
“If we didn’t succeed, it would have signalled the failure of the J-League,” Okano reflects. “Perhaps the media would only cover players in Europe and not pay any attention to domestic games. Even with the league’s decision to change formats [to a two-stage tournament in 2015] in order to increase revenue, this could have backfired in a major way.”
The goal was that Forlan’s signing not only boost Cerezo’s prospects, but also make it easier for other Japanese clubs to sign top foreign players. His presence has brought a wave of excitement to the league, with sell-outs taking place not only in Cerezo’s Yanmar Stadium, but also in away games against FC Tokyo and Urawa Reds.
But one more piece was needed to complete the puzzle: defender Gojko Kacar, who took the same flight as Forlan to Japan and quietly tried out for the club. Manager Ranko Popovic took interest in the former Serbia international, asking Okano to sign the 31-year-old.
Though Kacar was a year removed from first-team play due to injuries, his fitness was not an issue. His standing at Hamburg, who experienced a managerial change during his injury, allowed Kacar to be bought cheaply by Cerezo.
He was a perfect choice for a team that had experienced instability at the centre-back position in training camps, and became a key part of the squad from early in the season. According to Okano, it was the first specific request for a player Popovic had made since becoming a J-League manager.
Although few Europeans have chosen to play in Japan, Kacar’s decision may be a game-changer, allowing the J-League to potentially bill its level of competition as similar to the German Bundesliga.
Even if Kacar’s stint in Japan simply allows him to find a European destination after his loan spell finishes at the end of July, his performance will make it easier for the J-League to draw more European players.
In that sense, Kacar’s presence could have as big an influence on Japanese football as Forlan’s.