Vissel Kobe finally complete longer-than-expected journey to becoming champions of Japan

Drawing on their undeniable quality and experience in Europe, Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto both played pivotal roles in leading Vissel Kobe to a maiden J1 League crown in the 2023 season. Masashi Hara/Getty Images

They are now recognised as one of the more formidable outfits in Japanese football, even if they do not boast the traditional stature of rivals such as Yokohama F. Marinos, Urawa Red Diamonds or Kawasaki Frontale.

Yet, it is at times easily forgotten that Vissel Kobe's current stint in the top flight of Japanese football only began a decade ago and -- up till 2021 -- they had never finished higher than 7th in the J1 League.

But the quest was always for the club to reach the pinnacle of Japanese football.

And that dream was finally realised on Saturday when a 2-1 victory over Nagoya Grampus -- coupled with defending champions Marinos' 0-0 draw against Albirex Niigata -- saw Vissel seal the title with an unassailable four-point lead and a game to spare.

The scenes at the final whistle, varying from sheer unbridled joy to uncontrollable outpouring of emotion, illustrated just how much the triumph means for a club who for a while now have been expected to challenge for top honours, but also one who shockingly flirted dangerously with relegation last season.

At one stage in 2022, Vissel were dead last on the table with a league-high 13 defeats from 24 games and dropping out of the top flight went from previously unthinkable to an increasingly-realistic.

They eventually steadied the ship to finish 13th in the 18-team competition -- still hardly anything to write home about.

Any suspicions that Vissel might have another trying season in 2023 were hastily dismissed as they won ten of their first 15 outings to quickly establish themselves as legitimate contenders.

It was far from straightforward and they did have to weather a shaky month-long spell from the start of July which saw them pick up one win from five matches, and the fact that Marinos were not going to quietly relinquish their crown ultimately resulted in a two-horse race come the latter stages of the campaign.

Yet, in a similar way to how they kept their nerve to secure their J1 League status 12 months ago, Vissel showed similar composure to claim a maiden title this year.

Vissel becoming champions of Japan does seem a long time in the making, considering ambition and expectations have been lofty ever since they were taken over by local conglomerate Rakuten, who have never been shy of investment as seen from their previous and current sponsorships of LaLiga giants Barcelona and seven-time NBA champions Golden State Warriors respectively.

The first statement of intent came as early as 2017 when they secured the services of German FIFA World Cup winner Lukas Podolski, and it did not take long before he was followed through the door by fellow global icons such as Andres Iniesta and David Villa.

Their first major piece of silverware arrived at the end of 2019 in the form of the Emperor's Cup but the league title continued to prove elusive.

For all their big-name imports -- and it must be acknowledged that the presence of someone like Iniesta, in particular, was certainly crucial in enhancing the club culture and mentality -- it was perhaps the acquisition of proven top-level Japanese internationals to form the spine of the team that really laid the foundation of Vissel's eventual success.

First, in 2019, came Hotaru Yamaguchi, a one-time Hannover man who was a regular feature in the Japan national team and a seasoned J1 League campaigner with Cerezo Osaka, who was capable of fulfilling the pivotal role of midfield general.

Then, in quick succession, Vissel landed both Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto straight from Europe -- the former once being Werder Bremen's top scorer in the Bundesliga in the 2019-20 season, while the latter having had significant experience in Germany, the Premier League and LaLiga.

Interestingly enough, with the likes of Iniesta, Villa and Podolski all long departed, this core of stellar local talent -- along with others, of course -- that has been crucial to Vissel finally reaching the promised land.

While most J1 League clubs are still heavily dependent on their foreign signings, the Vissel starting XI that secured the title against Nagoya featured just one foreigner in Brazilian centre-back Matheus Thuler -- hardly a glamorous name in the Iniesta and Villa echelon but one who has been able to perform his task week in, week out.

Even ex-Chelsea and Manchester United star Juan Mata is still biding his time to star for his new team, having only joined the club back in September.

Instead, it has been Osako, who is on course to becoming this season's top scorer, and the ten-assist Muto who have led the way.

Along with former Japan stalwarts Yamaguchi and Gotoku Sakai, and consistent but unheralded contributors such as Thuler, Daiya Maekawa and Ryo Hatsuse, as well as the rising stars in Daiju Sasaki and Mitsuki Saito.

It has been a long and arduous journey - one with certainly as many lows as there were highs - but Vissel have finally become champions of Japan.

It will be interesting to see where the club's ambition takes them next -- with the obvious step forward challenging for continental glory in next season's AFC Champions League Elite.

Just like their previous quest, it could be quite the adventure.