Vissel Kobe has officially stamped its name in Japan’s footballing history books. With a win over Nagoya in late November 2023, the team clinched its first ever J.League championship.
Though the Rakuten-owned club dominated the 2023 season, their decades-long journey to the top didn’t come easy.
Journey to the J.League
Vissel Kobe‘s roots go back to 1966, when it began as a semi-professional squad. In 1995, they made the move to the city of Kobe, renaming themselves Vissel – a mix of the words victory and vessel, in reference to Kobe’s status as a port city.
The club’s journey to the J.League had begun, but in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, it was far from smooth sailing. By 2003, the club was facing bankruptcy.
The financial trouble prompted Kobe City officials to contact Rakuten CEO and proud Kobe native Mickey Mikitani with news that the club could soon disappear. Mikitani was decisive: “This team is a symbol of recovery and I cannot let that fade away.”
Vissel’s long road to victory
Under Rakuten’s wing, Vissel started investing in training facilities and a new stadium, gradually building a dedicated fan base.
For the next decade, however, the club saw mixed results on the field, even facing relegation to the J2 League.
The tide began to turn in 2017 after Vissel made several prominent signings including World Cup champions Lukas Podolski, Andres Iniesta and David Villa. The team first tasted victory with the 2019 Emperor’s Cup, earning them a spot in the AFC Champions League.
In 2021 Vissel had their best ever finish of 3rd place, though a rocky start to 2022 landed them 13th the following year.
2023, however, was a different story: Vissel Kobe hovered around the top of the leaderboards for much of the season, with consistent performances from World Cup veterans Yuya Osako, Gotoku Sakai and captain Hotaru Yamaguchi.
League victory finally arrived with a 2-1 win over Nagoya on November 25, 2023. The team cemented their position with another 1-0 win over Gamba Osaka, landing them a convincing seven points ahead of second-placed Yokohama FM.
For Rakuten Chairman and CEO Mikitani, the J.League championship is more than just a win; it’s a validation of nearly two decades of passion for his home team. Through thick and thin, Mikitani stayed committed to the squad, seeing his vision through to victory. The championship has now established a winning playbook for the team to work from going forward.
The timing couldn’t be more poetic – exactly 10 years have passed since the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles clinched their first baseball championship in 2013, just two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
With a fresh trophy in the cabinet, Vissel Kobe isn’t dropping their sails. The 2023-24 AFC Champions League beckons, and the team is more determined than ever to fulfill its mission to become Asia’s top football club.