It’s rainbow man

In the last years, many hierarchies evolved in Japanese football. That’s not something new, although some things never change, like Kawasaki Frontale crushing the opposition or some J2 sides still living a nightmare (ask Tokyo Verdy or JEF United Chiba how they feel about their odds for a J1 return). But then there are also stories of development, where the hard work pays off.

Sapporo is probably among those examples. Sure, the last two seasons haven’t been exactly fantastic, after that in 2018 now-renamed Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo came achingly close to finish second, only to end up fourth on the table after a 2-2 home draw against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Sure, that was the best result in club’s history, but the sour taste of missing out on such a big accomplishment felt heavy.

The 2019 J. League Cup final saw another possible turning point, but Shota Arai decided otherwise that day and Sapporo lost another train. Nevertheless, the work done by the club’s president, Yoshikazu Nonomura, has been amazing, just like the accomplishments by Shuhei Yomoda first and Mihailo Petrović now on the pitch. Witnessing a Hokkaido-based team in J1 for so long (this is going to be the fifth season in a row, never happened) wasn’t granted.

Bur if you look at the roster, which player comes to mind in representing Consadole and their rise? You could argue that Jay Bothroyd and Chanathip Songkrasin have done a lot both on and off the field for the brand of the club and the J. League itself. Many talents came from the youth ranks (from captain Miyazawa to Suga, going through Fukai and Arano), but there’s one player who had to come from the Kantō area to meet his destiny.

Despite he’s never played for the national team and stayed in Sapporo for a long time, it seems bogus to just ignore Akito Fukumori. His left foot draws rainbows from free-kicks and yet his tale seems to have gone unnoticed, despite his decennial career and a long journey, which has brought him to this point.

Sapporo, where dreams come true

It’s not like everything was easy for him: major expectations might have crushed Fukumori when he joined J. League from high school. Considered one of the best prospects national-wide after his three years at Toko Gakuen High School, the defender received multiple offers from J1, but opted to sign for Kawasaki Frontale. Maybe the best choice available to stay in the Prefecture and featuring in the highest stage of Japanese football.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. Fukumori featured just 22 times in all competitions over four years and two different managers (Naoki Soma and Yahiro Kazama). He didn’t fit into the four defenders-line up, since he didn’t look comfortable in playing as a left back. He was even tested as a defensive midfielder in his rookie year, but the rise of talents like Taniguchi, Noborizato and Kurumaya – all part of the current Frontale dynasty – left him out.

He needed a fresh start, so Fukumori joined Consadole Sapporo on loan for 2015. It was the move of his life: back then-head coach Ivica Barbarić tried him in several positions – center-back, full-back, wing back, side midfielder –, but the club opted to let the Croatian go and promoted Sbuhei Yomoda, who instead kept Fukumori as part of the three CBs-line up which will make the fortunes of Consadole next season.

Dodgy free kicks 101.

In 2016, in fact, Sapporo won promotion and the J2 title, while Fukumori crushed the opposition. He was what we would call a “shadow regista”, building the play from behind and providing many dangers with his free-kicks and corners. Apart from his good health (he played at least 30 games per season since he joined Sapporo), he kept that those solid performances also in J1, where he scored nine goals and assisted 23 over four years.

The best left-footed around

There’s no mystery: the left foot of Fukumori is something unique. There’s another possible comparison in the top-flight, since Ryosuke Yamanaka is another gifted left-footed wizard, but the Urawa Red Diamonds’ left back relies mostly on power: he’d be perfect for some NFL teams as a kicker. When Fukumori is up to the kicking spot, instead, you feel he could place the ball anywhere he’d like: he has a solid range of options.

Sure, his rise has its ups and downs. Fukumori isn’t just a shadow regista, but also a system’s player: it’s clear that he wouldn’t have developed this much without the 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2 in which he plays, just like he’s cut to be a left center-back, but Suga has to help him a lot in terms of defensive protection. Despite this, his profile deserved a spot in the 2019 Best XI (and we did our part in booking him a spot in our special column for that season).

Since he joined Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo permanently from 2017, the rise of Fukumori has been evident. A player with his flaws, but also his astonishing strengths, sometimes capable of deciding a game by himself. And it’s not like many J1 clubs could count on that, especially if we’re looking at teams who finished in the bottom half of the table in the last couple of years.

Case in point? In a crucial game for the relegation race, Fukumori found two goals from set pieces to rescue a draw away at Omiya Ardija.

Hokkaido and beyond

We often wondered if Fukumori shouldn’t be in Europe right now, but it’s useless to think about it now. Water under the bridge, since the defender is ready for his seventh season in Sapporo as the fifth longest-serving member of the squad, the fourth in the roster for games played in J1 (148) and the seventh member of the club’s history for matches featuring with this jersey (226).

Whereas a European chance looks out of his league now, a call by Hajime Moriyasu would be the bare minimum. It’s incredible how the Japan national team – the football squad which gave a chance even Yusuke Minagawa, Kohen Kato and Tetsuya Sakai – is reticent to do so for such a talented player. Furthermore, a player that would be actually useful for Moriyasu’s 3-4-2-1.

We’re curious about what the future will hold for Fukumori: he just turned 28 and it looks like he’s set to stay in Hokkaido, but will he play in the same position forever? Because we could see a evolution for him, by becoming a real “regista” maybe in 3-4 years, when defending might become harder than now. Meanwhile, we’ll just enjoy some of his rainbows until it lasts.  

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