J30: The Best XI of the J.League’s first 30 years

J30: The Best XI of the J.League’s first 30 years

The J.League has had an amazing first 30 years. Since its founding on May 15, 1993, the league has seen phenomenal players join the league and other fabulous players be developed by its clubs.

To celebrate the league’s first three decades, this is the J30 Best XI:

Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi

Kawaguchi joined Yokohama Marinos in 1994 at just 18 years old. A year later, he was the club’s starting goalkeeper, won J.League Rookie of the Year honors and led the Tricolor to their first J.League title. He earned a spot with the national team, starting in Japan’s first-ever World Cup match in 1998 and earned a move to Portsmouth in England. He returned to the J.League in 2005, reestablishing himself as one of the country’s best goalkeepers at Júbilo Iwata before finishing his career at FC Gifu and SC Sagamihara in the lower leagues.

Defender Masami Ihara

Ihara signed with Nissan Motors in 1990 and was with the club when it changed its name to Yokohama Marinos to become one of the J.League’s Original Ten. He immediately cemented himself as one of the best defenders the country has ever produced, winning Asian Footballer of the Year in 1995 as he starred for the Samurai Blue. He was also outstanding for Marinos, winning the league, two Emperor’s Cups and two AFC Cup Winners’ Cups for the Tricolor. Ihara finished his career at Júbilo Iwata and Urawa Reds before retiring as a J.League legend.

Defender Atsuto Uchida

Uchida was a star right from the start of his career, becoming a regular for Kashima Antlers as an 18-year-old in 2006. By the next season, he was helping lead Antlers to the first of three straight J.League titles and an Emperor’s Cup crown. After a pair of Best XI honors, Uchida moved to Schlake in Germany, where he was twice named to the Bundesliga’s Team of the Season before returning to Kashima in 2018. Already a legend for his play for club and country, for which he played in two World Cups, Uchida closed out his career in sterling fashion by helping Antlers capture the AFC Champions League.

Defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka

Tanaka made his professional debut for Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2001 at 19 years old and began a career that took him all over the J.League. In 2003, he joined Mito Hollyhock where he scored an astounding 10 goals from defense, drawing the attention of Urawa Reds, who brought him into the first division. At Urawa, Tanaka was unparalleled, winning 2006 J.League MVP en route to the J1 title, 2007 AFC Champions League and a pair of Emperor’s Cups. A move to Nagoya Grampus followed, where Tanaka was instrumental in leading the club to its first-ever league title. By the time Tanaka retired after three years at Kyoto Sanga, he was a nine-time J.League Best XI awardee.

Defender Yuji Nakazawa

Nakazawa joined the professional ranks at Verdy Kawasaki in 1999 and was a standout from Day 1, winning J.League Rookie of the Year and Best XI honors. He was given the first of 110 caps for the Samurai Blue that year, but his career went to another level when he transferred to Yokohama F·Marinos in 2002. Nakazawa helped the Tricolor win the J1 titles in 2003 and 2004, the latter of which also saw Nakazawa named J.League MVP. The defender played until 2018, eventually adding an Emperor’s Cup crown before stepping away as a Marinos icon.

Defender Naoki Matsuda

Matsuda’s very first professional season was one to remember, as he immediately stepped into the starting back line at Yokohama Marinos and helped them to the 1995 J1 title. He was still a fixture at the back come 2001, when they won the J.League Cup, and the following two years when the Tricolor repeated as back-to-back J.League champions. Matsuda’s outstanding play at the back earned him two J.League Best XI honors, a place on the 1996 and 2000 Japan Olympic teams, a spot on the 2002 World Cup squad and two Asian Cup triumphs for his country.

Midfielder Yasuhito Endo

Endo is a J.League lifer, playing for four clubs over 26 years. He won the Emperor’s Cup with Yokohama Flügels in 1998 before spending two years with Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined Gamba Osaka in 2001, beginning a 20-year stay that would see him help the Nerazzurri to the 2005 J1 title. After being relegated to the second division, Gamba won the J2 title in 2013 and in 2014, Endo won J.League MVP honors en route to an astounding J1 title for the Nerazzurri . Endo was also central to four Emperor’s Cup crowns, two J.League Cups and the 2008 AFC Champions League triumph. Endo then moved to Júbilo Iwata in 2020, helping them earn promotion to the top flight before retiring as a two-time Japanese Footballer of the Year award winner, Asian Footballer of the Year honoree and an unprecedented 12 J.League Best XI trophies.

Midfielder Shinji Ono

Ono broke onto the scene with Urawa Reds in 1998, playing excellently to earn J.League Rookie of the Year, Asian Young Footballer of the Year and J.League Best XI. Ono was so good that Feyenoord in Netherlands bought him at just 21 years old. Ono was back at Urawa in 2005 and helped Reds to the league title, AFC Champions League and Emperor’s Cup before returning to Europe, this time in Germany. Ono eventually rejoined the J.League, suiting up for Shimizu S-Pulse, FC Ryukyu and spending two stints at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, where he is still playing at 43 years old.

Midfielder Kengo Nakamura

Nakamura was the ultimate one-club man, spending every one of his 18 years at Kawasaki Frontale. Joining as a 21-year-old with the club in J2, Nakamura helped Frontale to the top flight within two years and then played a central role in their growth to one of the country’s best outfits. Nakamura lifted the J1 title trophy on three occasions, the Emperor’s Cup once and the J.League Cup once. He was named 2016 J.League MVP and was named to the league’s Best XI eight times between 2006 and 2018.

Midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura

Nakamura is a Yokohama boy who was a product of the Nissan Motors academy, eventually signing with Yokohama Marinos after the name change. There, he announced himself as one of the country’s best players immediately and won J.League MVP in 2000 before leading the club to the J1 title in 2001. After stints in Italy, Scotland and Spain, where he proved himself at the top levels, Nakamura returned to Marinos and was outstanding yet again. He won MVP honors again in 2013 as the Tricolor won the Emperor’s Cup before joining Júbilo Iwata in 2017. Nakamura eventually returned to his hometown to finish his playing career, but did so at Yokohama FC, where he helped the Fulie get promoted to the top flight. Eventually, he retired a Yokohama FC player, but stayed with the club and is now the Fulie manager.

Forward Kazuyoshi Miura

The inimitable King Kazu’s playing career predates the J.League by seven years as he played across Brazil, but when the domestic competition began in 1993, he was there as the Verdy Kawasaki star man. Miura won J.League MVP in the inaugural season and led Verdy to the first two league titles. He also won three J.League Cups in Verdy green and an Emperor’s Cup, as well as taking home personal Top Scorer honors in 1996. All the while, Miura was a star for his country, scoring 55 goals, including an amazing 18 in 1997 alone. After leaving Verdy, Miura suited up for Kyoto Purple Sanga, Vissel Kobe, Yokohama FC and Suzuka Point Getters, eventually becoming the oldest professional footballer ever. That is a record he continues to extend, currently playing for Oliveirense in Portugal on loan from Yokohama FC at the age of 56.