After making their mark with a host of big-name European imports, Vissel Kobe reached the J-League summit this season led by a core of Japanese stars playing a style far removed from the Barcelona-inspired tactics that initially brought the club success.

Kobe's maiden J-League title was also the culmination of a sometimes turbulent 28-year journey whose first steps coincided with one of Japan's deadliest natural disasters.

Lukas Podolski, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Tomas Vermaelen were all part of the Kobe side who won their first major title with the Emperor's Cup on New Year's Day in 2020. Nearly four years on, the high-intensity football under Takayuki Yoshida bears little resemblance to the previous old style.

Vissel Kobe players and supporters celebrate winning the J-League first-division title at Noevir Stadium in Kobe on Nov. 25, 2023. (Kyodo)

The title, clinched Saturday, was not even in Kobe's wildest dreams when Yoshida took charge in June last year -- when the club sat at the bottom of the J1 despite the huge outlay made possible by the backing of Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten.

After disjointed defensive performances resulted in successive defeats that summer, some of Kobe's key players asked the manager to introduce a high-pressing game.

It was a gamble that could have left them vulnerable at the back and susceptible to running out of gas in games, but the players' commitment saw them bounce back to secure safety in the absence of the injured Iniesta, setting the tone for this season.

Taking on the managerial role for the third time at the club where he spent six years as a player, Yoshida was fixated on reviewing match footage and especially uncompromising when it came to his players' pressing, telling them they would not be used unless they did thankless tasks.

"The players really ran for the team from the first game of the season," Yoshida said after clinching the title. "There's competition within the team, but the players who came through that fulfilled their duties on the pitch, carrying a sense of responsibility."

Vissel Kobe players celebrate after defeating Kashima Antlers 2-0 in the Emperor's Cup final at the new National Stadium in Tokyo on Jan. 1, 2020, marking the first sports event at the main venue of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. (Kyodo)

Kobe's financial muscle cannot be underestimated in allowing them to sign not only the aforementioned foreign stars, but also to convince top Japanese talent to come back from Europe, mainly Germany, and forsake their previous J-League club affiliations.

Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Gotoku Sakai all brought with them experience playing in European leagues, as well as for Japan at the World Cup. Osako, in particular, has been in scintillating form this term, both with his scoring and hold-up play, as well as in his newly adopted role of taking free kicks.

A shock snub from Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu's squad for the Qatar World Cup just over a year ago -- despite being heavily relied upon in Asian qualifying -- Osako has shown his distinctive talent while playing in all 33 league games so far this term, starting all but two as he knitted the team together up front.

The title is a landmark in the tumultuous journey for the club, whose first team had been set to train when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and the surrounding region on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, taking more than 6,000 lives.

Financial issues exacerbated by the disaster left the club on the verge of insolvency, with the city of Kobe providing some 3.5 billion yen ($23.4 million) in subsidies over a six-year period from fiscal 1998 to help stay afloat.

Vissel Kobe's Yuya Osako (front L) and Yoshinori Muto (front R) lift J-League championship silverware at Noevir Stadium in Kobe on Nov. 25, 2023. (Kyodo)

Ardent local support has also buoyed the club, as demonstrated Saturday by fans at Noevir Stadium raising their voices in chants referencing the natural disaster and Vissel's rocky journey, including two seasons in the second tier.

While Iniesta departed Kobe in July, having played little part in the current campaign, his video message congratulating his former team drew huge cheers inside the stadium.

While their predecessor company team was based in neighboring Okayama Prefecture before it moved to Hyogo Prefecture's capital in 1995, Vissel players have built a connection to Kobe through regular visits to local elementary schools, continuing a tradition started by their former star and still active 56-year-old Oliveirense foward Kazuyoshi Miura.

Inaugural J-League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, 86, previously said he wanted to see Kobe win the title, in light of "the number of people who worked to keep the club alive."

Local boy and defender Tetsushi Yamakawa said, "We need to keep showing our appreciation to Kobe both on and off the pitch."

Related coverage:

Football: Vissel Kobe win 1st J-League top-division title