Lower leagues across the globe #3: Japan
We started off in Portugal and stopped off at Denmark in our whistle-stop tour of lower leagues across the globe but it is now time to travel over to the other side of the world – Japan, to be precise. Japanese football fanatic Michael Hudson provides a fascinating insight into the division beneath the J-League.
There are only twenty professional football clubs outside the Japanese top-flight, but they encompass all four islands of the Japanese mainland, from Consadole Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido to Roasso Kumamoto on the shores of Kyūshū’s Ariake Sea, from big city clubs in Tokyo to Gainare Tottori, whose eleven players represent the whole of the country’s least populous prefecture.
Formed in 1999, six years after the launch of Japan’s first professional league, the J League Division Two (or J2 as it’s more commonly known) began with ten member clubs: nine taken from the semi-professional Japan Football League along with the unfortunate Consadole Sapporo, who became the first Japanese side to be relegated after losing all four games of a five-club play-off.
Following its initial boom, the late-1990s were a difficult period for professional football in Japan. Top-flight attendances had halved in just four years and recession-hit sponsors were less and less willing to subsidise loss-making football teams. With All Nippon Airways and Nissan Motors forcing the merger of J1’s two Yokohama-based clubs, the Flügels and Marinos, Sapporo’s relegation meant the top-flight shrank in size to just 16 clubs, including the rebranded Yokohama F. Marinos.
Outraged at their side’s dissolution, Flügels fans raised enough money to form their own club, Yokohama FC, the first supporter-owned sports team in Japan. After hiring German World Cup winner Pierre Litbarski as manager and persuading ex-FC Köln, Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen midfielder Yasuhiko Okudera to take up the role of president (a position he currently holds at both Yokohama and Plymouth Argyle), the new club won back-to-back JFL titles before they were eventually admitted to J2 in 2001.
Having announced its Hundred Year Vision of creating 100 professional clubs by 2093, the J.League formulated strict membership criteria for all new clubs, which now required the backing of local government and supporter groups rather than just a single corporate sponsor. The ten clubs played each other four times, with three points for a win inside ninety minutes and one for a draw (until 2002 an extra point was awarded for a tie-breaking goal scored in extra time).
Kawasaki Frontale, managed by ex-Japan international Ikuo Matsumoto, became Japan’s first lower-league champions, finishing nine points ahead of FC Tokyo, who were promoted in second place. Although the average attendance in that inaugural season was a disappointing 4,596, the J.League remained undeterred, accepting Mito Hollyhock as its 11th J2 club in 2000 and Yokohama FC the following year.
The next big change came in 2004. With the expansion of J1 to 18 clubs in time for the start of the 2005 season, Tokoshima Vortis and Thespa Kusatsu, both of the JFL, replaced second-time champions Kawasaki Frontale and Omiya Ardija, who were promoted to the top-flight. In the first of the short-lived Promotion and Relegation Series, third-placed Avispa Fukuoka lost over two-legs to Kashiwa Reysol, the bottom-placed team in J1.
FC Ehime, whose application had initially been rejected on financial grounds, were admitted to the league the following year after local politicians turned up unannounced at the J.League’s office in Tokyo and supporters raised a prefecture-wide petition of more than 350,000 signatures.
In the same year, an associate membership scheme was launched in response to a survey of amateur football clubs which revealed that almost sixty were planning to turn professional within the following thirty years. The first four clubs to be granted associate memberships – Rosso Kumamoto, FC Gifu, Gainare Tottori and Tochigi SC – have all subsequently joined J2.
In total, five new clubs were accepted into the league between 2008 and 2009, including Fagiano Okayama, who had been playing in the Chugoku Regional League (one level below the JFL) only two seasons before. With play-offs scrapped the previous year, 2009 ended with Vegalta Sendai, Cerezo Osaka and Shonan Bellmare filling the three automatic promotion places after a mammoth 18-team, 51-game season. Osaka’s Shinji Kagawa, now at Borussia Dortmund, finished top-scorer with 27 league goals.
Giravanz Kitakyushu took up their place as the 19th J2 club at the start of the 2010 season, winning only one of thirty-six games as the league moved to sides playing each other once at home and once away. Ventforet Kofu (who finished last in that first-ever J2 season) were promoted to J1 alongside Kashiwa Reysol and Avispa Fukuoka, the seventh of J2’s ten founding clubs to currently play in the top-flight.
Of the remaining three, Sagan Tosu and Consadole Sapporo finished mid-table in J2, as they had done eleven years previously, while FC Tokyo were surprisingly relegated on the final day of the season. With rivals Verdy already in J2, Tokyo now joins Brasilia and Berlin on the short list of capital cities without a top-flight football club.
For the J.League the next target is an increase to 22 clubs and the start of automatic promotion and relegation between J2 and the top division of the JFL. In 2010 a further three teams were granted associate membership, including S.C. Sagamihara of the Kanagawa Prefectural League (Level 6 on the Japanese pyramid), while V-Varen Nagasaki look set to become the 21st J2 club, possibly in 2013. Rejected in 2008, Okinawa’s F.C. Ryūkyū plan to reapply next year.
On December 4th 43-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura, Yokohama FC’s ‘King Kazu’, broke his own record as the oldest player to score a goal in J2. The average attendance (6,696 in 2010) remains as disappointing as ever, but with Miura signing a one-year contract extension, Gainare Tottori joining as the division’s 20th club and the resumption of the Tokyo Derby, next year’s 13th J2 season promises to be bigger, and perhaps even better, than anything that’s gone before.
Read the other posts in this series: