A 4-1 home loss to Kashima Antlers on Saturday sealed Cerezo Osaka’s relegation to the J-League’s second division (J2) following a turbulent campaign few expected.
The club with the distinctive pink uniforms made waves in January with the signing of Uruguay legend Diego Forlan. They entered the 2014 J-League season boasting an impressive roster including Japan internationals Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi as well as much-hyped starlet Takumi Minamino.
Their rise in popularity even coined a new buzzword: Cere-jo, referring to female fans whose interest lay less in the club itself and more in their attractive and young players.
But Cerezo floundered under new manager Ranko Popovic, entering the World Cup break with a 4-4-5 record. The Serbian was replaced with former Germany U-19 coach Marco Pezzaiuoli in June, but he too could not survive the axe after going winless (0-4-5) in nine games.
Youth coach Yuji Okuma stepped up to the plate in a desperate attempt to right the side, but it was too little and too late for a side that just half a year ago were competing in the AFC Champions League.
The 35-year-old Forlan filled seats across Japan and gave the struggling league a much-needed promotional boost early in the season, but with just seven goals in 18 appearances his Japan debut has been a disappointment and he’s considered unlikely to remain. His teammate, former German international Cacau, impressed far more with his passionate play after joining the club in August.
Cerezo’s Samurai Blue duo were of little help in the second half of the season; Kakitani departed in July for Swiss champions Basel, while Hotaru Yamaguchi sustained a knee injury in August that forced him to sit out the remainder of the year.
Club chairman Masao Okano, who had announced earlier this week that he would step down at the end of the season, was roundly booed by those who remained at Nagai Stadium during his post-match address to the crowd. Supporters behind the goal raised a banner reading, “Our ‘strongest attack in history’ [the club’s 2014 slogan] was only financial, and our reinforcement efforts were worthless in the end. Can a club incapable of using its 20 years of experience truly blossom?”
With 31 points from 33 matches, Cerezo are guaranteed of finishing no higher than 16th place regardless of their result at Omiya Ardija in next Saturday’s final round.