The story of the Derby in Yokohama (and its rebirth)

You know how Regista is just a link, a hub for many Japanese football passionate fans. Among them, you surely need to follow the dear Tobias – a.k.a. @ConDrei on Twitter – who’s actually the author of this solid piece about one of the rivalry coming back in J1 for the 2020 season. Enjoy!

It was New Year’s Day 1999. After an exhausting season there was one team, frankly one club in its entirety, its whole fan base looking forward to this day. After 34 league matches, this club finished sadly mid-table, just in eighth place. The League Cup – played just before the FIFA World Cup 1998 – was another disappointment, since they dropped out of the group stage after four matches with a single win.

This day, though, would be the last chance for the club to give the fans something they can look back onto for the rest of their lives. Not only we’re talking about the final of the prestigious Emperor’s Cup, but the Yokohama Flügels taking part to this final were no regular team. For the Flügels it was not only the last game of their season; it was their very last game ever.

The last time Marinos and the former Flügels met was August 2018, in the Emperor’s Cup.

The founding of the Japan Soccer League

Japan is no typical football nation like their European counterparts. The presence of baseball as a mass sports hindered the sport’s development on the island. The debut of the Japan Soccer League in 1965 as the first nationwide, yet corporate football league was a step in the right direction of Japanese football, but interest – with 7,491 attendants per game (1968) – was far from astonishing.

The teams were part of their respective companies and remained long-time in their existence amateur teams. Most attention was given to the Japanese national team, called Samurai Blue, which drew a sell-out crowd to the national Stadium kokuritsu in Tokyo on October 26th, 1985, despite losing 1-2 to South Korea. The Japanese Football Association (JFA) saw a chance to profit from the interest in the national team, consisting mainly of player from the JSL, and allowed their respective clubs to sign professional football players in 1986. A year later the JSL had already 57 pro-football players in their ranks.

In 1988 the idea of a completely professional football competition arose, but this time JFA wanted to establish their clubs outside of baseball’s hot spots in order to attract a crowd apart from baseball fans and stadium attendees. Two years later, 20 projects manifested the intention of joining the inaugural season of the J. League. These interests, though, resulted in only ten of these organizations getting membership rights to the new founded championship in February 1991.

The Yokohama teams

Two of the starting members of J. League had their home in Yokohama and gave Japanese pro-football its first official derby. Yokohama Marinos, the former corporate team of Nissan, and Yokohama Flügels, the former corporate team of All Nippon Airways and Sato Labs, not only shared their hometown, but also their stadium in Mitsuzawa Park, in the Eastern side of the city.

Professionalism opened the Japanese league to foreign players and many teams in Japan sought help from abroad by signing international top stars of their time. Marinos had an Argentinian colony, with Gustavo Zapata, David Bisconti and most of all Ramon Angel Diaz playing for them. Instead, Flügels wanted some Bundesliga-based players, in accordance to their respective German name, but failed in signing them.

Like their city rivals, South American footballers joined the team, like Fernando Moner, Aldrovani Menon and Raul Amarilla. To maintain a German spirit, Flügels asked German coach Gert Engels to join the club. He first moved to Aseno Sports Club (now Mito HollyHock) in 1990 and stayed 15 months as a player before coming back briefly to Germany, getting his coaching license and then joining Flügels as a staff member for the 1993 season.

The first Yokohama derby

Before J. League started in 1993, fans got an appetizer, named J. League Cup, which started after JSL finished in Summer ‘92. The first real derby in Yokohama took place on July 12th, 1993, in front of a crowd of 11,734.

It is hard to figure out a real fan favorite in the city of Yokohama, since near rivals – Verdy Kawasaki – were indeed enjoying way more success than both Yokohama teams. Apart from selling around 25,000 tickets per game, the Greens dominated national competition, winning titles between 1992 and 1994. Verdy’s dominance failed though in the Emperor’s Cup, where all titles in the same time were won by either Marinos or Flügels.

Not just those, though, because both Yokohama sides enjoyed international recognition: Marinos lift the Asian Cup Winner’s Cup, then Flügels won as well. Winning the competitions raised attendance figures: around 19,000 tickets were sold for Flügels’ games in 1994, but international glory was not being converted to domestic competitions.

With the league experimenting different formats – they started with a two stages-kind –, both Yokohama teams were mostly finishing seasons around mid-table. Marinos at least won the 1995 J. League against Verdy Kawasaki that, after dominating the first editions, fell into mediocrity. Flügels finished sixth (‘93), seventh (‘94) and thirteenth in 1995’s combined league table. The only time Flügels finished above their local rivals was in ’96, when a single stage-season took place.

The spirit of Barcelona

With the economic downfall shortly after the league’s inception, money became an issue and many big names of the league chose to not stay in Japan. For Yokohama’s clubs, the low point was 1997: while Flügels maintained attendance figures in the five digits, Marinos failed to do so, despite they finished third in the table. Flügels meanwhile remained strong in the Emperor’s Cup, yet losing the final against Kashima Antlers.

With the intent of raising their profile, Flügels signed former Barca coach Carles Rexach, who took the role of assistant coach under manager and legend Johan Cruijff until ‘96. After being interim manager at Barca, Flügels were the first real gig for Rexach: both parts were hoping for the best, while Japan got to host the 2002 FIFA World Cup (alongside South Korea). This pushed infrastructures to another level with the World Cup looming.

Many existing venues were upgraded and new ones were built. The city of Yokohama was granted rights to build a new multi-purpose arena of 72,327 visitors, so when construction finished in March ’98, the “Yokohama International Stadium” eventually hosted all coming Marinos and Flügels games, including the Yokohama derby. But despite a solid start – Flügels won their first game with a golden goal –, Rexach and his side lived through a nightmare of a season.

A five-game losing streak with 14 goals conceded did not help to Carles Rexach’s case, even though the situation got slightly better in mid-September by winning twice against reigning champion Kashima Antlers. Unfortunately, in front of a 53,598 crowd, Flügels lost another derby against Marinos (0-2) and by losing the following four games, Flügels’ board sacked Carles Rexach in hopes to save what is going to come.

Black Month

October of 1998 determined the fate of the Flügels side. A press release mentioned Sato Labs, one of Flügels main sponsors, suffered financially and had to pull out of the sponsorship deal. On the other hand, ANA was not able to pay for the team as a whole. To prevent the worst from the company and the club, ANA executives met with Nissan to discuss a possible merger of both teams for the following season. Negotiations went well, but the press release was leaked way before the end of the season, leaving a whole fan base stunned.

The following months turned cinematic, if not surreal. While Gert Engels succeded Rexach as manager and Flügels did not lose a single league match under the German coach, the club still had to approach its end in a strange mood. The last league match against Consadole Sapporo was won 4-1, but the season was not over yet. The Emperor’s Cup at that time followed the league schedule throughout December each year, starting its first round in 1998 in late November.

Flügels as a league contender had to wait until third round to start their surreal journey: After having defeated both Otsuka Pharmaceuticals (soon to be Tokushima Vortis) and Ventforet Kofu Yokohama Flügels qualified for the final rounds in Japans most prestigious and historic competition.

A young Yasuhito Endo – just 18 years-old back then – and his only year with Flügels, where he wore no. 27.

On top of the world before it crumbles

The quarter final matchup against Júbilo Iwata has been a special match. The winning champion 1997 would establish themselves as a rival for dominating Kashima Antlers in years to come. Yet it was not Júbilo’s time. Yokohama Flügels won 2-1 after goals by Yoshikiyo Kuboyama and youngster Takayuki Yoshida. After winning the semi-final match against the reigning champion in both Emperor’s Cup and J. League cup and newly-turned league champion Kashima Antlers Flügels progressed to the final of the 78th Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s eve.

The national holiday has been the traditional final of the Japanese football season for decades, being played in the National Stadium Kokuritsu in Tokyo. Yokohama Flügels and Shimizu S-Pulse were this year’s football league representatives that dominated the competition since the 1960’s. For S-Pulse, being born with inception of the J. League in 1992, winning would have meant to win their first-ever title, while Flügels – five years prior to this date – won their only domestic Cup title. Yet it was so much more for this team than a second trophy.

27 year-old Masaaki Sawanabori, who later will be referred to as “Mr. S-Pulse” as he only played for Shimizu after graduating from Tokai University, scored the opening goal after just 13minutes. With this advantage Shimizu S-Pulse almost finished the first half if it hasn’t been for Yoshikiyo Kuboyama scoring the equalizer in 44th minute. Both Gert Engels nor Englishman Steve Perryman, manager of Shimizu S-Pulse, were confident in their teams so nothing was changed before the second half kicked-off.

In the 72th minute it was Takayuki Yoshida who scored for Yokohama Flügels the crucial leading goal. This actually proved to be enough to give Flügels their second domestic title, yet the last trophy they are ever going to lift. Maybe for an instance the fans forgot that it was the last title for the club. Maybe they’ll remember how the team fought against all odds to not give in to their predetermined fate. Last but not least, it will be this final that all involved, staff, players and fans, look back in pride for the rest of their lives.

On February 1st, 1999, the beginning of the next season Yokohama Marinos were to be renamed. In an marketing attempt, to include the now homeless Flügels supporters, the rebrand will include the letter “F”, as reminiscence to the club, turning Yokohama F. Marinos to the only pro-team from Yokohama. Some Flügels players were to leave Yokohama or switch to the other side, but some opted to join a new project, born from the ashes of Yokohama Flügels.

Pierre Littbarski, former JEF United player, and European pioneer Yasuhiko Okudera didn’t want to see Flügels completely disappear and give a new team to the supporters who didn’t want to cheer for their former rival. By heavy grass roots funding from Flügels supporters Yokohama FC was born, with a phoenix displayed on the crest, starting back from the amateurish Japan Football League in 1999. Like the phoenix, Yokohama FC rose to professional football in 2001 being promoted to J. League Division 2 and occasionally let people relive the derby times when Yokohama’s prideful teams met each other on the pitch in different competitions.

In 2020 Yokohama FC and Yokohama F. Marinos will meet again in J1 League. It is the second revival of the Yokohama derby, after YFC got relegated dead last in 2007. It will be another head-to-head between Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo, not teenagers anymore, but grown up legends of the Japanese game. The phoenix arose and we’re all curious to see what’s going to happen.

When Tobias is not busy writing about Japanese derbies, he has time to host a nice podcast about Japanese football in German language, work for Transfermarkt, root for his beloved Sanfrecce Hiroshima and write about the league in his own language. Give it a follow to both GOALTAKU and Cavani Friseur: solid stuff!

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