Dreaming the year away

November 24th, 2019: last match of the J2 League, Level-5 Stadium. Avispa Fukuoka are hosting Kagoshima United FC in what appears to be a simple Kyushu-based derby, but the guests are playing for their survival. The home side is safe, but they had a terrible season: they close it with a win in front of their home crowd. A header by Masayuki Yamada pushes KUFC towards J3 and closes a terrible year.

Fast forward one year after and Avispa Fukuoka are actually celebrating an unexpected milestone, having still played the last game at home. With a 1-0 win, Fukuoka defeat Vortis and tie them in terms of points, being runners-up in the table. The promotion has been already clinched, but it’s a nice way to seal the season, especially after the year Avispa have been through.

What happened in the middle? Most of all, Shigetoshi Hasebe happened. The same squad who couldn’t reach a position higher than sixteenth in 2019 became a title contender in the same year when a crazy schedule has hampered many teams. Instead, Avispa found a clear identity with the newly appointed manager and some new heroes along the way: in the end, this resulted in a promotion.

Could we call it a miracle? Kinda. The writer behind this piece had Fukuoka on the rise, forecasting them in fourth at the end of the season. The moves on the market and the managerial change surely leaked a possible rise in the table, but with this kind of results? How much is this a miracle made possible by Hasebe and the new players? But most of all: can they survive in J1?

Shot of the year? Avispa players watching V-Varen Nagasaki v. Ventforet Kofu on DAZN after clinching their win in Ehime.

The Re-Hasebe-litation

Beside the terrible pun, it’s undeniable how hiring Shigetoshi Hasebe changed the destiny of the club in the pre-season. The back then-head coach of Mito HollyHock had a terrific season in Ibaraki, bringing the club to their best finish ever and lingering closely to playoffs, missed just by goal difference. Not only that, though, because Hasebe also made sure to develop several players under his guidance.

While Mito retained the reputation of club capable of developing talents (ask Kazuma Yamaguchi how it went for him), Hasebe joined Avispa Fukuoka and bring some players with him, like Hiroyuki Mae or Masaaki Murakami. And while the club didn’t lose any fundamental piece, they brought in a lot of solid players, even with loans that could be extended or turned into permanent moves for 2021.

Emil Salomonsson didn’t impress that much in Hiroshima, but became a regular star in Fukuoka. Asahi Masuyama and mostly Takaki Fukumitsu gave the squad some depth in creativity, while foreigners Douglas Grolli and Carlos Gutiérrez were supposed to be the anchors of the defense. When the latter got injured, Kashiwa-loanee Takumi Kamijima stepped up and shone with his performances.

If you add the purchase of Juanma Delgado from Omiya Ardija and the late snatch of Daiya Tono from Kawasaki Frontale on loan, Fukuoka had all the cards to be in the conversation for the promotion race.

Tono was probably the underdog story of the last two years in Japanese football.

A run to remember

It didn’t work right away though. Sure, Avispa clinched a nice win in the derby against Giravanz Kitakyushu in the first match of the season, back in February. But Avispa struggled to find the right pace: when they lost at home against Albirex Niigata in late August, they had four defeats in the last five matches. They seemed to not cope with pressure and a frantic paced season like 2020.

Then a miracle happened: from September 5th to October 18th, the club registered a 11 wins-streak that brought them directly in the Top 2. They won everywhere, recording tight score lines and featuring a granitic defense, which found its structure along the way. The 4-4-2 lined up by Hasebe worked a treat and some players were flying. This was probably the decisive run to achieve the ultimate goal.

Even if a couple of defeats slowed down their pace, Avispa found the needed results along the way. They won a crucial game in Yamaguchi, came back from a 2-0 disadvantage at home against Zweigen Kanazawa and then defeated Kyoto Sanga 2-0. At that point, winning in Ehime was a mere formality and it was enough to clinch promotion with still one game to go. The last win at home against Vortis was a way to celebrate this 2020.

Masaaki Murakami was one of the key-reasons why we’ll see Avispa in 2021 J1 League.

What to expect

Avispa have already done something crucial in the Winter transfer market: they retained Shigetoshi Hasebe, despite a nice offer he received. In fact, when he was a player in the 90s, Hasebe featured in the great Verdy Kawasaki dynasty before moving to Vissel Kobe, where he was a central player for the organization. Some weeks ago, Vissel tried to lure him to a head coach position, but the current Avispa manager declined, opting to stay in Fukuoka.

This is good – we’d dare to say both for the club and for him, who probably didn’t want to see his reputation tarnished by a Vissel stint –, but it leaves some questions on the table. For example, Jon Ander Serantes – beloved Spanish no. 1 and recipient of two “Best Goalkeeper” in the Regista Awards – was not confirmed for 2021, which left us all pretty surprised (including him). That’s a key-asset you’re losing: will everyone on loan stay around for J1?

Furthermore, for Avispa it’s really important to confirm all the pieces and that comes for a reason: they’re mostly an “elevator-club”. This is because the club was founded in 1996 with its current denomination, just after being promoted from JFL, and they stayed in J1 for six seasons. Once they got dropped to J2 in ’02, they won promotion back to the first tier for three times, but they were never able to retain their J1 status.

Despite having the sixth city in terms of population in Japan and being a key-hub for Japanese economy, Avispa Fukuoka didn’t manage to stay in J1: in ’06, they lost the Promotion/Relegation playoffs against Vissel Kobe, in 2011 they had a terrible season (just avoiding the last place) and in 2016, after a enthusiastic run under Masami Ihara, they floated in the bottom two spots for almost the entirety of the year.

One of the few highlights from that 2016 season? A home win against FC Tokyo in injury time. Fun fact: Avispa collected 12 of their 19 points only against FCT and Shonan in that year.

We would love to see Avispa thriving, because their fanbase is really passionate, the stadium is nice and we’ve seen other successful runs from Kyushu-based teams (Sagan, Oita, even V-Varen). But if they will be able to do that (J1 will have four relegations in 2021), that’s all to discover. Could the fourth attempt be the good one?

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