And then? Manager Takayuki Yoshida's squad made a glorious transformation from mediocrity to excellence in the nearly completed 2023 campaign, culminating with Vissel's first J.League crown.
On Saturday, November 25, the Kansai-based team earned a title-clinching victory, 2-1 over visiting Nagoya Grampus. It was Vissel's 20th victory of the season, which began in February, in 33 matches, giving them 68 points heading into their season finale. Their record also includes eight draws and five defeats, with 59 goals scored and 29 allowed.
In winning a J1 title for the first time, Vissel's Haruya Ide and Yoshinori Muto scored in the 12th and 14th minutes to stake the hosts to an early 2-0 lead. Grampus pulled within 2-1 on Kasper Junker's 30-minute tally.
The rest of Saturday's match was both exhilarating and agonizing for Vissel fans as they waited for the final seconds to tick off the clock.
Reigning champion Yokohama F. Marinos (with 64 points and 19 wins, seven draws, seven defeats) can finish no better than one point behind Vissel in the standings.
For Vissel Kobe, Steady Improvement a Focal Point
"I'm sure the supporters have been waiting a long time for this day," Yoshida said after Saturday's match, according to Kyodo News. "We've looked to improve each day.
"I've shown the players video after every game, showing what we're not doing right, and we've made adjustments each time on our way here. It's been a steady process and I'm proud of them."
Yoshida, 46, began his third stint as Vissel manager in June 2022. He previously guided the team in 2017-18 and 2019.
Vissel's final match of the season is on Sunday, December 3 against host Gamba Osaka.
Osako Basks in the Championship Euphoria
An irreplaceable part of the team's starting lineup, Yuya Osako, 33, brought valuable experience from his many seasons playing in Germany (2014-21) when he returned to the J.League two years ago.
"I came back to Japan for this and I couldn't be happier," said Osako, according to Kyodo News. "We just believed in ourselves and trusted our teammates. It's really great to have won and I'm thankful to everyone."
Sasaki Raises Profile in 2023 J.League Season
In pro basketball, especially in the NBA, there's frequent talk about the need for a "Big 3" to become a championship-caliber team, referring to a lineup featuring three superstars. Common opinion states that you can't win titles in basketball with just two superstars.
There are, of course, always exceptions to the rules.
On a similar note, soccer clubs with only two consistent goalscorers aren't as dangerous as squads that have three or more players with a large chunk of the team's goals.
Take a look at Vissel's scoring statistics this season. Veteran star Osako is the J1 leader in goals (22), one more than Marinos' Anderson Lopes. Muto has 10. That's more than 50% of the team's scoring output.
Other Kobe players have stepped up at crucial moments throughout the season, including Daiju Sasaki who is having the best season of his career.
Entering this year, Sasaki had scored a total of two goals in 67 J.League matches from 2018-22.
Since the start of the current season in February, the 24-year-old midfielder has seven goals in his 32 matches. That puts him third on the team's chart.
Sasaki notched his first league goal of 2023 against Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in Vissel's second match of the year. It now appears to be a positive omen.
Making an Impact for Vissel Kobe
In Sasaki's most active game as an attacker this season, he had seven shots and two goals against the Kashima Antlers on October 21. Sasaki put Vissel ahead 1-0 in the 16th minute and accounted for the final goal in a 3-1 triumph in the 83rd minute at Tokyo's National Stadium.
After that victory, Sasaki reflected on his and Vissel's performance.
"As you saw, today's result is thanks to us all running and working hard," Sasaki said, according to Kyodo News. "Haru (Ide) showed his individual skill to send in the cross for my first goal, and the second [off a corner] makes me happy as it was something we'd worked on."
Winning a title this season is an indispensable experience for Sasaki and his teammates.
And it raises the stakes for Vissel Kobe moving forward. Since joining the J.League in 1997, the franchise has had two stints as a J2 team (2006-09 and 2013-18) and one previous top-three finish in J1, in 2021.
And then came the drop to 13th place in 2022.
Will Vissel, which parted ways with past-his-prime midfielder Andres Iniesta in the summer of 2023, be able to maintain this level of play in 2024?
We shall see.
Tominaga Helps Lead Nebraska Past Duquesne
Senior guard Keisei Tominaga scored a team-best 23 points as the University of Nebraska topped visiting Duquesne University 89-79 in the last game of the Cornhusker Classic, a four-team round-robin tournament, on Wednesday, November 22.
Tominaga was 6-for-12 from the floor, including 2 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He sank 9 of 10 foul shots in a dynamic 23-minute performance. It was his first 20-point game of the season, his 11th in a Cornhuskers uniform.
Nebraska, which is 6-0 to open a season for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign, scored on 16 straight possessions to open the second half.
The Cornhuskers finished the game with 16 assists and two turnovers.
Tominaga said Nebraska's up-tempo offense and team-first approach paid off against the Dukes.
"I think we keep moving. We do this every single practice," Tominaga told reporters before adding, "We move the ball very well."
He then said, "We're very unselfish, we play as a team."
Hachimura Sustains Nose Fracture, Expected to Be Sidelined for a Week
Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura broke his nose in the first quarter of a game against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, November 22.
Two days later, Hachimura underwent a medical procedure to mend the fracture.
While recuperating from the injury and surgery, Hachimura didn't travel with the Lakers on a four-game road trip that was set to begin on Saturday.
The Lakers said Hachimura will be "re-evaluated by team doctors" in about a week," ESPN reported.
Japan Series Champion Tigers, Runner-Up Lions Hold Parades
Kobe and Osaka were filled with parade watchers as the Japan Series champion Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes, who finished second in the all-Kansai champion series on November 5, were greeted warmly by baseball supporters on Thursday, November 23.
The Tigers began the day with a parade in Kobe, then had another one in Osaka in the afternoon. Orix's day began with a morning jaunt through Osaka, followed by one in Kobe.
In total, the parades attracted more than 1.2 million spectators, Jiji Press reported.
The day also provided an opportunity for Tigers manager Akinobu Okada and his Buffaloes counterpart, Satoshi Nakajima, to look back at the memorable season and express gratitude to fans.
"I feel a very keen sense that we accomplished something having battled for the whole year," Okada was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "Our results are our way of repaying your support, and in the end, we felt winning was a must."
Speaking in Kobe, Nakajima said, according to Kyodo News: "I want to thank you for staging this grand parade. Since Kobe is our former home, we were really looking forward to this. I never thought we would be able to do this here."
Super Rugby's Blues, Chiefs to Visit Japan in February
The Blues will meet the Tokyo Sungoliath and Yokohama Canon Eagles on February 3 and 10, respectively, in a tournament dubbed the Cross-Border Rugby 2024 series, at Tokyo's Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
As for the Chiefs, they are set to face the Saitama Wild Knights on February 4 and the Kubota Spears six days later. The venues are Kumagaya Rugby Stadium for the opener and Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium for the second match.
Blues chief executive Andrew Hore told New Zealand website Stuff that the upcoming competition should be beneficial for the Super Rugby teams during their preseason.
"We've seen the evolution of Japanese rugby in recent times and it's a market we see significant value in as it grows in popularity and we start to redefine our own competition," he said. "This trip adds another layer to our pre-season. It gives players and coaches quality time away in a tour environment to foster relationships and develop combinations ahead of what should be an exciting 2024 season."
In Remembrance of a Loyal Reader
This installment of the Japan Sports Notebook is dedicated to the memory of avid reader Diana Barfknecht, who recently passed away in Minnesota at age 81.
A retired nurse, Diana was a positive, kind person and one of my mother's close friends.
Readers provide inspiration and motivation to pursue stories. Week after week, they challenge us to deliver interesting story angles and commentary and often encourage us with feedback about certain articles.
For years, Diana would send frequent emails from the United States, asking about a particular aspect of Japanese culture ― and often about sports, especially horse racing.
In responding to Diana's many inquiries, I learned plenty, too, researching a bit more on a particular subject or trying to explain in greater detail about something I had seen or read about.
A Fondness for Gray Horses
In recent years, the emails often would be about horse racing, a sport that I've covered more frequently in the 2020s than in the 2010s. And Diana loved horse racing. She and her late husband, Dale, attended countless horse races together in Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. And she liked to remind me about it.
"Dale and I went every Saturday, and if we went on vacation, we'd find them close by," she once wrote.
Diana had a particular fondness for gray horses. In recent years, she mentioned one of her favorite racing stories on multiple occasions, telling it in a variety of ways and citing a few different racetracks.
"I'd always bet on the gray horse. Needless to say, I did not do so well," she wrote in another email, adding a smiley emoticon.
Kurofune progeny Sodashi was one of Diana's favorite horses and she was delighted to receive YouTube videos of her races.
The beautiful, white Japanese filly, who officially retired in October 2023, brought joy to Diana and untold others during her successful career.
Author: Ed Odeven