The crownless winners

The 2018 season of Japanese football is coming to an end. We still wait for J2 play-offs, J1 has been a revelation (despite we didn’t have our last-breath title-race) and J3 gifted us new protagonists for the 2nd tier. Also, Vanraure Hachinohe are 99% a pro-football club and FC Imabari have almost managed to reach them from JFL, slipping at the end.

In such a developing football movement, it’s actually pretty tough to watch a season dominated by just one team. It happened from time to time in all three pro-divisions, but the further you get down into the Japanese football pyramid, the more fun and unpredictable football gets. Yet, there’s a team which literally destroyed this surprise and they play in Japan Football League.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it’s not the first time Honda FC won the Japan Football League. It’s not the first a team dominated the JFL. But it’s probably the first time Honda FC won the league by a landslide and it’s the first time someone destroyed the highest amateur Japanese division with such a massive effort.

J. League’s gatekeepers

Honda FC are a particular exception in J. League: while many clubs were corporated-related and now they have a current and proper identity (even if they didn’t cut their ties with such companies, which feature as sponsors), Honda FC remained an amateur club. There were no plans to become a pro-club and they stayed that way, moving further below into the Japanese football pyramid.

Honda FC were founded in 1971 and their players were all tied to the motor industry; yet, they were capable of playing several seasons in first division and even reached the League Cup final in 1990. Despite these good results, Honda’s owners opted to not join the new J. League in 1993 and they accepted a second tier-status: it was more important to keep doing well in the automobile sector than achieving anything on football.

But despite that dismissed intention, Honda FC continued to thrive. The newly-created Honda Miyakoda Soccer Stadium even saw their triumph in the 1996 Japan Football League, when the Shizuoka-based club won the second division, coming ahead of Vissel Kobe, which than took promotion since Honda’s owners didn’t want to grow football-wise.

That year, Honda FC were also ahead of Tokyo Gas (now FC Tokyo), Tosu Futures (now Sagan Tosu), Consadole Sapporo, Brummell Sendai (now Vegalta Sendai), Montedio Yamagata, Fujitsu Kawasaki (now Kawasaki Frontale), Oita Trinity (now Oita Trinita), Ventforet Kofu and NTT Kanto (now Omiya Ardija). Basically, Honda FC did better than many clubs which would then be a part of J1 League 10-15 years later.

When J2 League was formed in 1999, Honda FC stayed in third division – always named Japan Football League –, becoming a stable powerhouse in this category. In 15 seasons spent in third tier, the club’s worst position was 7th in 2009; they won the championship four times, coming second another four times and having a great run in 2007 Emperor’s Cup. In that edition, they reached the quarter-finals by knocking out Tokyo Verdy, Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus, only losing against Kashima Antlers after extra-time.

You would argue that these amazing results deserved a true investment by Honda. Yet, this didn’t happen even in 2014, when J3 League debuted and still Honda FC remained in Japan Football League, while already several clubs took the leap from JFL to J2 League. This was normal due to low crowds: between 1999 and 2013, only four times Honda FC had more than 1,000 people of average attendance. And the last time that event happened was 2005.

With the disappearance of many clubs to J3, Honda FC had the way cleared to dominate. Yet, it hasn’t been easy, even for the new Apertura & Clausura format, which split JFL in two stages. Honda FC won the title in 2014 after a close play-off against SP Kyoto FC (5-4 aggregate), but they were 3rd in the overall table. In 2015, they didn’t even won either of both stages, being runners-up in both.

And then? Then something changed.

Tatsuya Furuhashi, 38 years old and a guidance for the club.

Owners of destiny

Thanks to 2016 and 2017 season, we’re used to Honda FC coming back to dominate the JFL. In both occasions, the club won both championship and last year they didn’t even need to feature in the play-off, because they won both stages. But 2018? Wow if it was another story.

The largest margin to win the JFL title came in 2004, when then-named Otsuka Pharmaceuticals – now Tokushima Vortis – triumphed by taking promotion to J2 and scoring 78 points, 16 more than runners-up… Honda FC. But the Shizuoka-based club changed history: in 2018, they achieved a masterpiece of 79 points, 76 goals scored and 25 allowed. And if in the first stage they left some space to FC Osaka (38 points against 34: third-placed Vanraure Hachinohe came at 25 with other two clubs), Honda FC won the championship by a landslide.

With seven games to play, they were already sure of topping the overall table. They never lost in the second stage, with 13 victories and 2 draws. They have an advantage of 22 points to FC Osaka, 23 points on Vanraure Hachinohe (which next year will be a J3 League team). Among their results:

  • A 6-2 home win v Tokyo Musashino City FC;
  • A 5-1 away win @ Cobaltore Onagawa;
  • A 4-1 away win @ FC Imabari, big contenders for a J. League spot;
  • A final 5-2 home win v MIO Biwako Shiga.

Most of all, a player like Shogo Omachi – their no. 9 and main striker – revitalized his career by joining Honda FC, scoring 41 goals in three seasons after just four achieved in the same time with Zweigen Kanazawa. And despite such a season, some veterans – like Yuki Shimizutani and Takahiro Tsuchiya – are gonna retire to focus on their working careers.

2016, when Honda FC lift again the trophy. They’re on the 3rd in a row.

The bottom line

You would probably say there’s a magic formula behind this success. Not so much: it’s no mystery the growth of many clubs – dreaming of a pro-spot – would take tougher opponents away from JFL and make the job easier for Honda FC. Yet, the numbers are still impressive, especially for this season.

The first key-move was keeping the manager, Hiroyasu Ibata, who has been there since 2014. He also played for the club two decades ago, when Honda FC were already on the mouth of everyone as the dangerous team for JFL. He even featured for J1 League team – like Nagoya Grampus and JEF United Ichihara –, but he retired at 27. He was one of the first Japanese players to follow Kazu Miura’s trails and travelled to Brazil for studying football. At 44 years old, he could be ready to jump into pro-football.

The second move was made in 2016, when the club opted to mix amateurs with some and selected professional players. Shogo Omachi was one example, but there’s also Tatsuya Furuhashi, who previously played for Honda FC and then took the leap to J1, before returning recently where everything started. He might be 38 years old, but he’s certainly useful in a context like JFL.

And now what? Can we see more than a triple crown? And most of all: is there a club capable of overcoming Honda FC? Theoretically, there might be: just look at several projects which will feature in the Regional Series or JFL in the next seasons (one day, probably, Iwaki FC and Okinawa SV will thrive). Yet, many failed already in this goal: just look at FC Imabari, a big project which has still to postpone J3 football to 2020; or Vanraure Hachinohe, which had the clear goal of reaching J3 and they did it, though by piling up 57 points of disadvantage to Honda FC in the last three seasons.

So, who knows? Are we witnessing the dominium of a crownless winner?

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