(Paper) Birds can fly

We’re at the IWAGIN Stadium of Morioka, in a humid night, one from the last weekend before the end of the Summer. Minute 89 of a balanced J3 match, the one played between hosts Iwate Grulla Morioka and guests Azul Claro Numazu. Just before injury time, the ball comes to the foot of Brenner, the lone striker of the home side.

He stumbles a bit, but then finds the space to fire away a tight-angled shot, who ends its run in the net, beating Masataka Nomura. It could be just another late win in a normal J3 match, but it’s not: the 905 spectators featuring for this game are really happy and you can tell how the home side has a good vibe as well. The Brazilian striker takes in the affection from his team-mates, it’s all in their hands.

It’s called “willpower”, the strength that comes once you feel invincible. But it’s probably the first time that feeling circulates around Iwate Prefecture. Despite featuring among the original clubs which found J3 in the maiden season (in 2014), Iwate Grulla Morioka were never into any conversation. No relegation? They are risking nothing, then. And surely they were never in contention to get promoted.

Until now. Until 2021, the year which has witnessed them starting with a bang and possibly dreaming of their best result ever in their pro-history. But how? And why?

From non-profit to pro-world

Thinking about the story of the club, Iwate Grulla Morioka are young even for Japanese football’s standards. Founded in 2003 by a non-profit organization, people in Morioka just wanted to see football making it there as well. There was a team – Villanova Morioka –, which then became Grulla by forming a squad with students from both Morioka Commercial High School and Morioka Chuo High School.

Former JEF United Chiba player and pillar, Shinichi Muto, became the head coach of a squad which immediately made it to the Tohoku Soccer League, jumping immediately from the second to the first division. Unfortunately, there was a problem: despite the desire of the people there to see Grulla in the pro-world by 2008, it took way longer to reach the ultimate goal.

The club got titles in a row in their division, but never the chance of coming up. J2 wasn’t possible. They couldn’t get through the First Round of the tricky Regional Football League Competition and eventually the reign of Toru Yoshida – another former JEF United Chiba man – came to an end in 2011. The year when the first piece of the puzzle to make the leap came to life: Naoki Naruo took the helm of the club.

The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake didn’t make it easier, but eventually Grulla Morioka had their shot. They couldn’t get to JFL, but the birth of a third professional division – the J3 League – was in JFA’s plans. What if they could get there? They did. They had an amazing 2013 season, crushing the opposition in their own divisions (four out of the five best wins of the club in terms of score line come from that season. At least for now).

After a long curse, Grulla finally clinched the title in the Regional Football League Competition and clinched their spot in the history of Japanese football’s development plans.

November 23, 2013: Grulla Morioka v. Fagiano Okayama… Next (yes, they had a B-team in the Regional Leagues). That day Grulla sealed their fate for years to come.

Three is the haunting number

It’s strange to think about it now, but actually the maiden year of Grulla Morioka in pro-football was good. Among 13 teams, Morioka came fifth. They weren’t remotely close to the Top 4, but they managed to play decently and ending in front of SC Sagamihara and Blaublitz Akita in the final table. Unfortunately for Naruo and his players, things were not going to stay that way.

Results took a nosedive throughout the years. Sure, the club wasn’t in a position to improve much more than that, but they tumbled. Already in 2015, Grulla Morioka ended eleventh (out of 13 squads). Then thirteenth (out of 16), fifteenth (out of 17), thirteenth (out of 17) and last in 2019. Meanwhile, Naruo left his post in 2015, replaced by Akihiko Kamikawa (who lasted one season) and Toshimi Kikuchi (three years).

Nevertheless, Grulla Morioka had their own chunk of history. Kazuki Arinaga, currently in the roster, is the all-time leader for matches played in J3. Kohei Doi, the keeper, has featured in 170 games. Kaito Taniguchi started his career in Morioka, where he showed everyone why first Roasso and now Niigata are counting on him. And former captain, Kenta Matsuda, stayed in Morioka for a decade, following the whole trajectory of the club.

But there was even more than that. There were some on and off-the-pitch changes. The club added “Iwate” to the denomination, just like Consadole Sapporo did with “Hokkaido” a few years ago. Also, there was a new mascot: Kizuru, basically a paper crane, approved in 2017 and then became even tridimensional to feature live throughout games.

Kenzo, not Kaito, Taniguchi giving it straight to opponents in 2017.

A leap forward in quality

But the moves off-the-pitch were even more important. In October 2019, NOVA Holdings purchased the 51% of shares in the club, surprisingly investing in a remote reality. Iwate Grulla Morioka, though, didn’t stop there: they inked a three years-deal as well with Borussia Dortmund, who were enthusiastic over the new partnership (“We are pleased and proud to extend and welcome another member to the BVB family”).

These deals matched with a key-move on the bench: Iwate Grulla Morioka hired Yutaka Akita as a head coach. A former JNT member and Antlers legend, Akita had a brief but unsuccessful try at coaching: he lasted just one season at Kyoto Sanga in 2010 and didn’t stand a full year at Machida Zelvia three years later. Probably no one expected to see him back in a head coach capacity, but Morioka opted to give him a new chance.

They also managed to recruit some interesting players. For the first time, four Brazilians were in Morioka. And if two left mid-season with no regrets, the remaining two stayed and made a solid impression. Lucas Morelatto, a crafted mezzala with a deadly left-foot, was the talk of the town and probably the best player from 2020 season. Brenner, a hefty striker with the strength of an oak, offered a solid option in a league where classic no. 9 still works.

Somehow, 2020 was a success for Grulla: they ended eleventh, they racked up some decent wins (especially away: for example, at Sagamihara and Toyama) and ruined the party to Nagano Parceiro, who were 90 minutes away from J2 promotion by winning 2-0 in the last match of the season. They also mixed expert J. Leaguers (Muta, Wakimoto, T. Nakamura, Arinaga) with young discoveries (Nakano, Yomesaka, Ogaki).

But 2021 is going even better! They kept almost all the squad and collected already 21 points in just 11 games. Some players are still improving: Brenner has already matched the goals from 2020 and Shikama is well into the rotations. Without forgetting rookies who came straight out of universities, like Toi Kagami and Shunji Masuda. Or players who have joined from other teams, like Kenta Kurishima and Takuma Takeda.

With the 2021 as uncertain as ever in J3 League – with just 15 teams and two promotion spots up for grabs –, we can’t really rule out anything. At the same time, Iwate Grulla Morioka had a decent run as well in the Emperor’s Cup: they trashed Oyama SC 13-0 at home before giant-killing Vegalta in Sendai and they’re now expecting to face Shimizu S-Pulse in the next round.

So it’s true that birds can fly, even when they’re made of paper.

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