The maiden year

After a long delay, football is ready to come back in Japan. If many focused on J1’s return on July 4th, this weekend it’ll be up to J2 and J3 to live up to the hype grown throughout this long wait. Especially for the third division, it’ll be a first time, since the second tier had at least played one match before the delay. Meanwhile, J3 League will start its run tomorrow, with several games to play.

Among those matches, the most interesting one will probably take place in Gifu, where the recently relegated home side will endure their first J3 match ever, the first third-division match in 13 years. Against them, though, there will be a new face for the league: FC Imabari. The ambitious side can’t wait to start their path into pro-football after a long chase.

Backed by Deloitte, overseen by former national team head coach Takeshi Okada, FC Imabari were indeed for a brief period the reserve team of Ehime FC (from 2009 to 2011), so basically there were part of their local rivals. From there, their trajectory has been amazing, although they’ve probably stayed in JFL more than they forecasted. Last year, they achieved promotion after closing the 2019 season in third place.

But they won’t be the first team to debut in J3: after the original eleven clubs who oversaw the birth of J3 League in 2014, four more clubs had their maiden year in the division. And there’s a strange tendency: every single one of them overachieved their initial expectations. Will it be the same for FC Imabari? Data from recent years look encouraging for Planagumà and his boys.

A 1-0 home win against FC Maruyasu Okazaki has granted Imabari to access J3 with three games still to play.

The rollercoaster

We probably touched this point already in the last article we’ve published (here) and we’ll probably have a piece about it one day, but Renofa Yamaguchi were the first team to actually debut after the first year of J3. Their promotion from JFL looked solid, but a little scrappy on the pitch: attendance numbers were good, but they granted themselves the promotion with an overall fourth place.

Still, Renofa Yamaguchi in 2015 were one of the best team J. League in its whole history has ever seen. Especially if you think about lower divisions, their dominance was absolute: they had an amazing run of results, their performances were eye-catching, they scored 96 (!) goals in that season. Only catch? Too many losses: eight, same as Nagano Parceiro that year, who though scored half the goals and were shy of eight points in the table.

Under manager Nobuhiro Ueno, that squad thrived and ran an offensive brand of football, fielding a 4-2-3-1 who saw many current J. Leaguers had their first shot at pro-football. Just to make a list: Jun Ichimori is currently the back-up at Gamba Osaka, Yuki Kagawa has just signed for Oita Trinita, Ryuta Koike is back to Japan after a stint abroad and some former Renofa players are part of Kyoto Sanga (Shoji, Kuroki and Miyagi).

Not to forget, Kazuki Kozuka is also at Oita Trinita, where he’s an essential piece for the #OitaBall of Katanosaka, Yatsunori Shimaya is back to Vortis after a short J1 period with Sagan Tosu and Takaki Fukumitsu is thriving in J2. Probably, only Kazuhito Kishida hasn’t been able to keep the up with the premises seen in that team. And that amazing team, anyway, almost lose it all.

They had to go the last matchday of the season to clinch the victory of the championship and the direct promotion to J2. A last-gasp equalizer by Kiyohiro Hirabayashi – who quit football for three years to be a futsal player, only to come back with Renofa – granted Yamaguchi the 2-2 in Tottori and the crucial point to seal the deal. Nonetheless, what a debut from this club in pro-football!

Just think about winning games for months, crushing the opposition and then landing only five points in the last five matches to seal promotion at the last minute of the last game of the season.

Two confirms at the top

After Renofa got promoted, another team had another shot at debuting in J3: Kagoshima United FC. Born in 2014 from the merge between Volca Kagoshima and FC Kagoshima, the new club found their way to promotion in 2015, after coming fourth in the Japan Football League. Kagoshima is a wonderful place, so it was missing a team from that Prefecture and the attendances number on average was solid (2,624 in JFL!).

They were missing though a star and they found it when they signed Noriaki Fujimoto as a free agent. Fujimoto was coming from the disbanded SP Kyoto FC and we told his story here, but his trajectory was mostly following the one of KUFC: a newly discovered reality, blossoming through the pitches of Japanese football. Tetsuya Asano was their manager, who had his biggest gig in managing Iga FC Kunoichi in the Nadeshiko League.

The club had their first struggles, their impact wasn’t immediate. They took eight points from their first six matches, scoring just three goals and seeming a little rusty. Then something switched and Fujimoto made his magic, bringing KUFC to a run of eight positive results in a row. In the second part of the season, the club looked comfortable in the league and lost the third place in the final part of the season (one point in the last four games).

And while on that Nagano pitch Asano was crying (he was already aware of his passage to Parceiro for the successive season), KUFC could be satisfied. They built something: indeed, two more season will be necessary to get promoted to J2. And although they’ve immediately come back to J3, Kagoshima will be a reality to watch in the next years, because it could become a strong force in both Kyushu and second tier.

The first pro-win ever in Yokohama: a penalty by Fujimoto sealing the deal.

But if Kagoshima Prefecture wasn’t really represented on the map of Japanese football, there isn’t any shortage of clubs in Shizuoka. Numazu is already famous for being the birthplace of Shinji Ono, but Azul Claro wanted to leave a sign there, despite Júbilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse are already dominating the region (although their recent history isn’t exactly covered in glory).

In all of this, J3 League had already featuring a team from Shizuoka, Fujieda MYFC, which coincidentally are based in another important birthplace, which has welcomed the development of key-players in the history of Japanese football, like Makoto Hasebe, Hiroshi Nanami and Masashi Nakayama. Yes, the same “Gon” who retired in 2012 and then came back to join his hometown club, although he never played a game with them.

Azul Claro could have appeared like a PR-stunt, but in 2016 they clinched the third place in Japan Football League – effectively second on the overall table, just two points shy of JFL-rulers Honda FC – and they granted themselves promotion with the best attendances-rate (2,332 of average). Some were expecting Ken Yoshida and his guys to struggle, but the manager – at his first pro-experience – surprised everyone.

Not only Azul Claro Numazu thrived, but they did that by having the best attack and the third-best defense around: huge numbers, which brought the club having an amazing run throughout the 2017 season. In the last game of the season, they even faced the possibility of winning it all, hosting Tochigi SC at home. The guests already lost promotion the year before, but they scrapped a point through Nejc Pečnik’s left foot and they came back to J2.

One of the biggest “What If” of lower Japanese leagues? What if Tochigi lost again the promotion to J2 for a second year in a row? We don’t know if they would have followed a Kataller or Gainare-kind of path.

Probably the biggest beneficiary of this run has been Yoshida himself: named “Manager of the Year” in J3 for the 2018 season, he stayed in Numazu for two decades and kept the club in the Top 4 for three seasons in a row. He just signed for Blaublitz Akita: if he’ll be able to repeat the results seen in Numazu up in the North, maybe Yoshida will even have a bigger shot in the pyramid of Japanese football.

The bug in the system

In 2018, we haven’t seen any promotion from JFL, since 2017 season didn’t see any team reaching the mandatory goals to achieve it. The club who came closer to that was Vanraure Hachinohe, coming fifth and four points shy of the Top 4. In the successive year, the Aomori-based club tried again and this time succeeded, clinching third place and overcoming way more boosted realities (like Imabari or Nara Club).

It was a strange phenomenon, because Aomori has another JFL club – ReinMeer Aomori –, but football in the North is mostly represented by Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, who made a huge leap in the last years. Meanwhile other clubs are there, surviving, but the rise of Vanraure wasn’t unexpected. Just tough, because attendance and facilities were there – a new stadium and 2,208 average fans in JFL –, but the results might have been worrying.

Will a small side from the North be able to face with realities bigger three, five, ten times more than Hachinohe? As we’ve seen until now, newly promoted-teams have the upper-hand in terms of surprise. It’s not an accident if their first goal-pro ever came against Gamaba Osaka U-23 by the left foot of Koya Tanio, maybe the player who represents best the rise of Hachinohe (overlooked by bigger clubs, he built his career from scratch and scored eight goals in his first J3 season).

Another excellent choice was hiring Atsuto Oishi, who had a solid record managing Fujieda MYFC for three and a half seaons in J3. In our opinion, he was indeed one of the main reasons why Vanraure didn’t slip to the bottom of the table, but instead enjoyed a nice mid-table run, achieving solid results along the way and overcoming even better financed-realities in the table.

Just as a reminder: Naoki Sanda scored four goals in one game; Youske Kamigata was alongside Sanda the only player to reach double digits of goals; they even racked six points against Nagano Parceiro and an away win against Thespakusats Gunma, who then got promoted at the end of the season. Actually, in away games, Vanraure clinched the third place (!) with 30 points, just one-point shy of Thespa and four of Giravanz.

There are thought two concerns for the future of the club. First: the promotion didn’t push to a rise in attendances and that’s first time it ever happened for a newly promoted club. It might be for several reasons, but it’s not a good sign, although there’s room for improvement. Second: Oishi was let go at the end of this really solid season and we fear that might be a bad move.

Perspective

Unlike Tokyo Musashino City FC – who folded on their goal of coming up, given the shortage of fans and possibly costs from going full pro –, FC Imabari never lost hope in their project. The third attempt was the good one, since the promotion came with some games to play, after a long fight against TMCFC and Tegevajaro Miyazaki, who might be next in line to try for J3 (alongside Iwaki FC and Veertien Mie).

FC Imabari is a financially solid project, in a prefecture where Ehime FC risk of losing their predominance. Sure, Ehime did an amazing job in surviving for more than a decade in J2, since to our view that spot looked out of the reach for a long time. Yet, there might be a derby soon between the two realities, because Imabari has many premises that could bring them to a promotion soon.

Ehime is a small prefecture and it’s hard to imagine both realities in J2, but Imabari has the better chance of surviving on the long run. Their roster improved again by bringing in Masamichi Hayasshi from Gainare Tottori, a good way to solve another problem: the club the best defense by far in JFL, but only the sixth best-attack. That’s an issue to solve, because offensive football seems to work for newly promoted sides (and Imabari had to say goodbye to Yoshihiro Uchimura, who retired last year).

And that probably brings to why FC Imabari opted to change their manager before the J3 debut, letting go Takeshi Ono and hiring Lluís Planagumà Ramos, who had mostly experienced football in the lower Spanish tiers. The experiment could go in a range going from Ricardo Rodríguez to Lluís Carreras: Spain has given a lot to Japanese football in recent years, but it’s tough to say how it will go.

As always, seeing new teams will be exciting. Let’s just hope FC Imabari will be up to the task in such a strange season.

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