By Nicolás Miremont –
It has been two successful months for Colombian football. First, Atlético Nacional beat Independiente del Valle to capture the second Copa Libertadores title in their history (1989, 2016). And more recently, on Wednesday August 10, the Colombian club, and Copa Sudamericana champions, Independiente Santa Fe from Bogotá stitched another star to their badge as they beat Kashima Antlers 1-0 and conquered the Suruga Bank Cup at the Kashima Stadium in Japan—after some dramatic 90 minutes full of attacking football and amazing saves.
What is the Suruga Bank Cup?
The Suruga Bank Cup is a South American/Japanese trophy disputed annually between the champion of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) and the champion of the Japanese League Cup.
Originally named the Sanwa Bank Cup, this competition has helped to generate a commercial tie between the CONMEBOL and the Japanese FA—the trophy was renamed after the Suruga Bank became its sponsor in 2008.
Whether you get up early to support your team or to indulge in nostalgia if you happen to have loved the Intercontinental Cup which was played until 2004 in Japan, this match has delivered thrilling encounters throughout its short history—despite the fact that it is often called a “plastic cup”. Arsenal de Sarandí set things off in 2008, after beating Gamba Osaka.
The format consists of a single match at the home stadium of the Japanese team. So far, the Cup has been lifted five times by Japanese teams, and four times by South American teams. The team with the most titles is Kashima Antlers (2012, 2013). The list of runner-ups includes Internacional do Porto Alegre, Independiente de Avellaneda and Liga de Quito.
There have not been any scandals apart from a suspicious ending to the 2013 final between Kashiwa Reysol and Lanús, when the referee gave an utterly imaginary penalty to the home side that gave them the victory in the 89th minute. After this penalty, a succession of skirmishes broke out when the South Korean referee allowed the Nippon side to waste a lot of time with a substitution that took three minutes to happen. This resulted in disobedience and taunts directed to the Argentine team—to which the referee clearly turned a blind eye.
Nevertheless, the Suruga Bank is a great opportunity to present a thrilling game of football, and a chance to compare two different cultures. All of this, while watching two teams you might not hear about ever again, makes it a more enjoyable experience, than does the competition standard of today’s monopolised football.
New Title Adds Up to Colombia’s Great Moment
Last Wednesday’s victory only adds to the success of Colombian football. Independiente Santa Fe took their first piece of silverware back to Colombia after 12 years when they beat Huracán in the Copa Sudamericana Final, the first-ever triumph in that competition for Colombian football. This, not to mention Atlético Nacional’s Copa Libertadores, was the third time time a Cafetero team won the competition.
After their great presentation at the 2014 World Cup, Colombian football has made a big leap forward. Colombian football has stepped out from under the shadow of legendary midfielder Carlos Valderrama. In fact, Colombia is slowly pushing their limits and is showing the world that James Rodríguez and Falcao are not the only quality players—that, instead, the nation has become a regular provider of great players.
Although Colombia has yet to assert itself as a South American football superpower, they are on the path toward this goal. The last couple of years have given the country the confidence it needed to forge its own attitude. The country has now dedicated resources to youth development, and clubs now show patience for their managers’ long-term projects. This perseverance is proving to be very useful to Columbian clubs in continental matches, and the results show that the nation has currently the best club football on the continent.
The Suruga Bank title proves not only how far the development of Colombian football has come, but also shows that teams like Independiente Santa Fe manage to cope well with the level presented by foreign teams.
Dominant Kashima Met With Unbreakable Visitors
Independiente Santa Fe travelled to Japan with almost the identical team that beat Huracán on penalties to clinch the Copa Sudamericana last year. Their keeper, Robinson Zapata, pretty much the whole defensive block, and Omar Pérez, their iconic Argentine playmaker, all still feature for the club.
All of them have shaped this humble and dedicated winning machine that relies on precise and well-oiled counterattacks. Only manager, Gustavo Costas, briefly left in 2015, but re-joined the club three months ago. He was fundamental to creating a team that could win the Copa Sudamericana.
Regarding the attack, having sold Miguel Borja to Atlético Nacional didn’t result in a complication since loaned striker Humberto Osorio slotted in the only goal of the match against the Japanese with just 12 minutes to spare on the clock. After the match, he mentioned the importance of scoring this goal since he has been fighting injuries for quite some time now.
Meanwhile, Omar Pérez remains the key part of this squad. He only stayed at Indpendiente because of his objective: winning an important title for his club. Though he may no longer be in his prime, Pérez is irreplaceable for this squad. Santa Fe would not have come this far without his last pass and his vision. Besides, he knows how to deal with tense situations, those that tend to happen as a part of the folklore of the Copa Libertadores.
Finally, there is Robinson Zapata, the goalkeeper, who was the star of the game after he stopped a penalty with 10 minutes to spare. Apart from that, he made several determining interventions that helped his side hang on to their 1-0 victory after having been embattled by the Japanese for the entire match.
The home team, on the other hand, were by far the best team in Japan up until a few weeks ago, clinching the J-League Stage 1 title by one point back in June, to go alongside their Nabisco Cup (the League Cup that gets you to the Suruga) victory back in October. The way the two stage system works in Japan (currently in the second season of its latest incarnation) means that Kashima were already guaranteed an end of season playoff place irrespective of their performances for the remainder of the year.
Some would say that, predictably, Kashima have dropped off considerably, only winning twice since then. Currently they lie just below mid-table in the second stage standings with an average record, some suggest that they are about to coast home in preparation for the final series at the end of the year.
Their Stage 1 calling card was a solid defence, which has recently gone off the boil (conceding 12 in their first 7 games of this stage), while losing their last 3 matches. Personnel wise, since their title victory, they’ve lost inspirational Brazilian forward Caio to Al Ain in the Emirates, as well as defender Naomichi Ueda who is currently playing for the national team at the Rio Olympics.
FutebolCidade spoke to Martin Lowe, who is a specialist on Japanese football, about Kashima’s key players. Lowe believes that Mu Kanazaki, is one of the stars of their first stage victory. Kanazaki’s return to Antlers has been a key reason for their success.
Initially returning from an unspectacular spell in Europe, Kanazaki confirmed his return on a full time basis over the winter transfer window. An all-round striker, who poses a threat while running the channels as well as a danger aerially, was played in midfield, probably after expecting overwhelming pressure by their rivals. He did miss the penalty awarded to Kashima, which made his appearance a bit of a disappointment.
Shoma Doi, who plays alongside Kanazaki, is a fleet footed attacking midfielder who has been one of the stars in Kashima’s recent ascent. He scored the game winning goal in in Kashima’s first stage crowning against Fukuoka three months ago, but is now being asked to come to the fore more often, going forward to replace the outgoing Caio in support of Kanazaki. He came in after 40 minutes, when the manager decided to take some more control of the match by putting on another threat up front.
Gaku Shibasaki is number 10, an architect who’s had big things predicted of him ever since he broke through with the national team at the last Asian Cup in Australia. Shibasaki, who was compared initially to Japanese legend Yasuhito Endo, who he aimed to replace in the Samurai Blue squad, is much more mobile than his experienced colleague but shares his vision for a pass. He remains the metronome of the Antlers midfield, and was also part of the squad that won the Suruga Bank trophy back in 2012 and 2013. This time, however, he could not display his magic and his rivals got their way by narrowing spaces and waiting behind their usual lines of play.
In the end, the game resulted in a full monologue by the Japanese team, which goes to show their great discipline and attention to the important matters. Santa Fe, however, knew how to hold on, scored, and did the rest correctly enough to lift the trophy.
We might not understand the value of this milestone, for most of us support teams that rarely compete for these kinds of tournaments. But the value, that winning anything in Japan carries for Independiente Santa Fe, cannot be replaced and will never be forgotten.
What is next now for Independiente?
Being the Copa Sudamericana champions, they are guaranteed a place at the Recopa Sudamericana, two matches between the winners of the Libertadores and the winners of the Sudamericana. This is a great opportunity to add yet another achievement for manager, Gustavo Costa, to the Colombian club.
Once they have dealt with that, the league is always a challenge, but in my opinion they should focus mainly on doing well in the Copa Libertadores and perhaps, who knows, they might win another ticket to Japan by this time next year—this time against the champions of Europe in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico