The supporters of Cerezo Osaka ought to be well used to contrasting streaks of good and poor form by now. The team had not originally been considered a candidate for the J1 title in 2005 when an unbeaten run of 16 matches – including seven wins on the bounce – saw them propelled to the top of the table, only to blow their chance of glory with three straight draws including the ‘Agony of Nagai’ on the final day. The following year, contrarily, saw a spell of 12 games without a win either side of the summer break – encompassing seven successive defeats – plunging Cerezo into an ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation to J2, with their fate being decided by another run of no wins in the final five. This spring saw Levir Culpi’s side once again run off seven straight wins to put themselves right in contention for a return to the top flight, but their chances have been severely damaged by a record of just 12 points in the 14 games since then. With Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Montedio Yamagata looking unstoppable in first and second, the battle for third place and a promotion/relegation playoff is intensifying just as quickly as the scrap to avoid such a fate at the bottom of J1.
Taking my place as I do among the more fervent Gamba Osaka supporters, I am obviously surrounded most of the time by a fair amount of anti-Cerezo sentiment. After a badly out-of-sorts Gamba had been overtaken by Cerezo in November 2005, I went for a meal with some of my more prominent fellow fans, where the general consensus was that ‘it will hurt if we lose the league, but not as much as if they win it’. In the end, the Agony of Nagai served as a miracle for Gamba, and the derby matches the following year saw Gamba fans taunt their rivals with T-shirts depicting Akinori Nishizawa’s tears and chants of ‘Cerezo, did you cry?’. Even at the final game of that season, when Gamba faced off with Urawa Reds to decide the title, the same supporters declared their intentions with a banner reading ‘Title No. 2 for us, J2 for Cerezo’, showing that the home town rivals were still not far from our thoughts.
However, even though the news of Cerezo’s relegation initially brought consolation to the Gamba supporters as we suffered at the sight of Urawa’s championship celebrations, the realisation hit home on the return journey that there would be no Osaka derbies in 2007. These two matches had always been something to look forward to regardless of the form of each team, and were naturally the first dates to check for when the fixture lists were published at the start of each year. Though we may still laugh just the same whenever we learn of a Cerezo loss via the scoreboard at Banpaku, our smiles may have had a certain wryness to them of late as the sense of what we are missing has grown.
There are four professional teams in the Kansai area, and with Vissel Kobe returning to the top flight at the same time that Cerezo were relegated, it is not as if we are completely without derby matches. However, although people do still enjoy the so-called ‘Kansai derbies’, these still do not bring quite the level of passion as the real thing between the two Osaka sides, and indeed the most painful thing for Gamba fans about last weekend’s draw with Vissel was the fact that the Kobe side’s late equaliser was scored by Yoshito Okubo, a former Cerezo player. Among the current J1 members, the ‘national derbies’ with Urawa Reds tend to evoke the highest levels of excitement and tension – unfortunately, excessively so back in May at the Saitama Stadium – but despite the attention these fixtures attract across the country, they still do not quite compare to fighting it out with the neighbours.
The city of Osaka is some way from reaching a level where every single person is either Gamba or Cerezo, and there is still plenty the clubs themselves could be doing about this, but that issue is best left for another time. For those of us that love football, in any case, the Osaka derby is a matter of competing for local pride, with Gamba fans singing passionately about how ‘we are the only Osaka’, and Cerezo fans displaying defiant banners in English reading ‘Real Osaka’. The difference in divisions itself may be a source of pride for Gamba, but without a derby there will always be a sense of distance, and the meetings will only be missed more and more the longer the status quo persists. Dare I say it – perhaps even the Gamba fans might be a little pleased if Cerezo’s next streak is a winning one.