Five teams going for the title on the last day, a Brazilian journeyman being top scorer with 33 goals and possibly the most dramatic ending to any season, anywhere, ever; the 2005 J League matches any classic European title race.
For the first time, the league had been expanded to 18 teams and had scrapped being split into two stages. Previously the two winners of the stages would play each other in the final. Now, it was just a standard league format, 34 games each, each club plays one other twice. Standard stuff. But what ensued was absolute chaos.
It can be said that football in the 2020s lacks unpredictability. The same teams often win the same titles every season and sometimes by November it’s obvious who is going to win the league for the fourth or fifth consecutive season in a row.
But not in Japan in 2005. Think classic Japanese game show Slippery Stairs, where everyone trips over each other trying to reach the top of a pyramid covered in baby oil.
FC Tokyo went top after the first four games but then went on a five-game losing streak, eventually finishing 10th. Kashima Antlers took control and after 13 games opened up a 10-point lead over Gamba Osaka and looked to be taking control, with only one defeat to their name.
Alongside plenty of other Brazilians in Japan that season, Alex Mineiro had joined Kashima after a loan spell with Atletico Mineiro and ended up being their top scorer with 15 goals all season.
Gradually though, Kashima started to slowly drop points and couldn’t keep up their strong start. First, they crashed out of the Japanese equivalent to the League Cup at the group stage and then started to falter in the league.
Three defeats in seven to Yokohama F-Marinos, Nagoya Grampus and Sanfrecce Hiroshima opened the door for Gamba to close the gap. A nine-game unbeaten run in the middle of the season put Gamba top by a point with 14 games left to play.
Another Brazilian – Clemerson de Araujo Soares, best known simply as Araujo – finished as the top scorer for the season with 33 goals from 33 games. He had the time of his life that year. Nine goals in six games in July charged Gamba up the table, a hat trick in a 7-1 win over Tokyo Verdy being the highlight. Every title race needs a luxurious striker and Araujo played the part to perfection.
Throwback to when Araújo scored 33 J. League goals in one season (2005) 🤯
No other player has scored more than 30 goals since. pic.twitter.com/FZXOejVcRF
— J. Football Now (@j_football_now) May 29, 2023
Araujo told journalists after the game that iconic hat-trick: “We have to think about Kashima who are currently on top, we have to win every single match to win the title.”
But like Kashima, Gamba also slowly started to drop points. A key title decider come the final weeks vs Kashima was a big chance for Gamba to extend their lead to four at the top. Araujo thought he’d scored the winner in the 90th minute to make it 3-2, but his countryman Mineiro equalised straight from kickoff to split the points in a six-goal thriller.
More defeats followed to Oita Trinita and FC Tokyo and come the last game of the season, Gamba had lost five out of their last six matches.
Kashima were also dropping points, drawing six from their last 10 going into the final round.
All of a sudden the title race was wide open. Urawa Red Diamonds, who wore an identical shirt to Manchester United that season down to the template and colour, had picked up some late form.
Experienced forward Tomislav Maric had signed from Wolfsburg alongside attacking midfielder Robson Ponte from Bayer Leverkusen. A late-season run of form of six wins in eight had pushed Urawa right into the mix. Going into the last day of the season they were in third, two points off top spot. Former Bundesliga winner Guido Buchwald was trying to emulate his heroics with Stuttgart to make up for Urawa losing the title in dramatic style the season before.
Others capitalised Kashima and Gamba dropping points, too. Gamba’s city rivals, Cerezo, were going for their first title and had started the season terribly, ending up in midtable and a long way adrift as they approached the run-in. But out of nowhere, Cerezo went on a seven-game winning streak and come the final week had somehow found themselves top by a point. Tatsuya Furuhashi had found some late-season form to put themselves in the mix.
JEF United also found themselves in with a shout after beating Gamba in the penultimate game of the season, which saw them move up to fifth. Only two points separated Cerezo at the top and JEF in fifth going into the final round of fixtures.
A final day for the ages
Going into the last day, Cerezo were top on 58 points, Gamba second on 57, Urawa third on 56, Kashima fourth on 56 and JEF fifth also on 56.
Cerezo hosted midtable FC Tokyo, who had nothing to play for. Their task was the simplest. Win and the title was theirs. Gamba were away to Kawasaki Frontale, who were in the same position. Urawa went to Albirex Niigata who were towards the bottom end of the table, but safe. Kashima were at home to 16th place Kashiwa Reysol, guaranteed a spot in the relegation playoff. And JEF United were at home to Nagoya Grampus, who had only just secured safety.
Saturday, 3 December 2005. All five teams kicked off at the same time: 14:00. Although the two Osaka teams were favourites, the other three definitely still had a chance.
Three minutes in it looked like the title was heading to Cerezo for the first time after Akinori Nishizawa headed home to give them the lead vs FC Tokyo. But you’ve got this far in the piece and you know that there’s more to come by this point. Tokyo equalised on 21 minutes through Norio Suzuki and at half-time, Cerezo were drawing 1-1.
Araujo gave Gamba the lead in their match against Kawasaki, but like Cerezo found themselves conceding before half-time. 1-1 there too.
JEF were also being held 0-0 by Grampus at halftime.
Kashima managed to go 2-0 up vs Kashiwa and Urawa were winning by the same result in Niigata.
As things stood at half time, Urawa were top on 59 points via goal difference ahead of Kashima and Cerezo.
Cerezo only needed a win to get the title and re-took the lead on 48 minutes through Nishizawa again. It was theirs to lose once again.
Elsewhere, Urawa scored again and were comfortably cruising past Niigata. Gamba went 2-1 up through Tsuneyasu Miyamoto but found themselves pegged minutes later and were stuck at 2-2 going into the last 10 minutes.
JEF, Urawa and Kashima’s games all finished but the two Osaka clubs ticked on further. Cerezo just had to hold on and they were champions.
Gamba were given a lifeline with 12 minutes to play; Yasuhito Endo buried a penalty to restore their lead.
Back in Osaka, the unthinkable happened. On 89 minutes, Cerezo conceded from a corner that wasn’t cleared properly. It was 2-2 and as things stood, Gamba were champions. Two minutes later their joy was confirmed when Araujo made it 4-2 in Kawasaki. The nomadic Brazilian had saved Gamba once again. Within a matter of seconds, Cerezo went from being champions to fifth in the final standings.
If there’s a more dramatic ending to a title race, we’d love to hear it.
— Ｊリーグ（日本プロサッカーリーグ） (@J_League) December 3, 2021