The Surprise Package

In a crowded J3 promotion race, they’re surely names we didn’t expect. At the beginning of the season, we talked about Iwate Grulla Morioka and their sudden rise under manager Yutaka Akita. That rise hasn’t really stopped, since the Iwate-based side is still in contention for a shot at the Top 2. But there’s another club who’s taking the spotlight.

I think everyone could agree that, when we talked about football in the Fukushima Prefecture, the biggest anticipation regarding 2021 was about… Iwaki FC. Yes, a non-pro side who last year almost got promoted to J3, only to end up one point shy of the Top 4 and having to wait another year.

Maybe the wait helped them: Iwaki FC are crushing the JFL this season and they’re leading comfortably the table, with good chances of winning it all and an almost sure promotion on their hands. Nevertheless, this story isn’t about them.

Surprisingly, the “other club” in Fukushima is the only pro-reality now. And they decided to take it up a notch in 2021, living the best time of their lives, just when their future archrivals are about to reach them in J3. But what if the “Fukushima Derby” wouldn’t happen in 2022?

Seeing Fukushima United FC winning 4-0 away in Gifu was impressive.

Yes, because – against all odds – Fukushima United FC are currently at 32 points, sharing the top with Kataller Toyama after 17 matches. And they actually screwed themselves by seeing their win against Vanraure Hachinohe reverted after they fielded an ineligible player, targeted with a positive COVID-test. Otherwise, they would have been steadily at the top.

Surprise? Is it really? Yes, it is. But maybe not so much.

Unity makes strength

Even compared with other environments in Japanese football, the foundation of Fukushima United FC is pretty recent. In 2002, Atsushi Yokota founded the “Fukushima Yume Group”, which then became “Junkers” in ’04. Meanwhile, the club overtook the management of “FC Perada Fukushima” in ’06 – who were instead founded in 1977 – and merged the two realities in “Fukushima United FC” in February ’08.

When they renamed the club, the “united” part needed to represent how different part of the region were working together, since 23,546 signed for this birth: in fact, FUFC gathered the intent from three different regions of the Prefecture (Aizu, Nakadōri and Hamadōri: incidentally, the last one has Iwaki as capital city).

FUFC had to go through several years of working. First the Fukushima Prefectural League, then the Tohoku Soccer League. They also had to overcome the adversities of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: that year, FUFC won their first TSL title. Two years of duels with Grulla Morioka brought FUFC to the final competition, where they ranked as runners-up in 2012 and that was enough for a ticket to the Japan Football League.

Fragments of 2012.

Their journey through JFL lasted just one season: the time of a 14th place-finish and then, boom, a leap to J3. In the newborn third division – now the last professional tier before JFL -, Fukushima appeared as the “worst” team promoted. But they snatched a good deal before going pro: in fact, a partnership with Shonan Bellmare started in 2013 and, somehow, FUFC have been the beneficiary of this deal. But we’ll talk about it later.

Among the pros

Have these guys shined in J3? Not so much. Their best season could be the 2017, when they ranked tenth out 17 teams. Their attendance was on the rise, but dropped in 2020 – like everyone – because of COVID. It’s strange: Fukushima United FC don’t have any particular memory to offer. No historical J3 game, no incredible run in one Emperor’s Cup… nothing.

Probably because the best came from the players who wore this shirt. Among the original clubs who still haven’t been promoted from J3, surely Fukushima counted on the best batch of players.

Just to make some names of the ones who played there:

  • Takaaki Shiichi, now at Avispa Fukuoka.
  • Shota Fukuoka, also playing in J1 with Tokushima Vortis.
  • Both Hoshi, Kota and Yuji, respectively featuring for SC Sagamihara and Albirex Niigata.
  • A bunch of Blaublitz Akita players: Hayate Take, Keita Saito, Yuji Wakasa.
  • Yuto Horigome, current Albirex Niigata’s captain, featured in Fukushima.
  • Ryosuke Kawano, who’s wearing a Fagiano Okayama shirt.
Marinos youth » Fukushima » Toyama » Akita » Next?

Last season seemed a bit off. The manager, Takeo Matsuda, worked mostly on what he had and the youngsters, since Fukushima registered their 22 youngest line-ups only in 2020. But they built something, because the value of the squad increased and FUFC let something slip about their potential. Unfortunately, everything seemed ruined this Winter.

Captain Ryosuke Tamura left in February to play in the Korean second division. Masaki Ikeda, one of the talents within the team, got a ticket for Shonan Bellmare. And not just that, because FUFC lost Ismaila this Summer, who joined Kyoto Sanga. With the talent of Ömer Tokaç limited by injuries (read his profile by @losthopemag_eng, really good), it seemed FUFC were doomed to anonymity.

Why 2021 has been different

Instead, something clicked on the pitch. We guess for two reasons.

First: Fukushima United FC has a decent front office. In the end, they keep finding good players, both in-land and abroad. Just take the Ismaila case: finding that kind of attacking talent, who was back then playing in Mauritius… it’s not just a matter of luck, but mostly some nose for talent.

FUFC reinforced the squad with some deals last Winter. They solved the goalkeeping problem by signing Kaito Yamamoto, who is 36 years-old, but he had a strong 2019 season with Roasso Kumamoto before being benched. Shoma Kamata was without a contract way in March and now he’s a starter. The loan of Nobuki Iketaka from Urawa Red Diamonds is working well and Tokaç surprisingly joined with a permanent move.

Then you must add the youngsters: sophomores are confirming their development (like Hiromu Kamada and mostly Riku Hashimoto), while rookies have found already a spot in the starting eleven (like Kosuke Tanaka and Kazuki Dohana at the back, or Uheiji Uehata and Yuta Nobe up front). This goes without counting the growth of Hiroshi Yoshinaga, at his third year and ready for bigger chances.

Riku Hashimoto was already showing off last year.

Born here, live here

But the real deal is on the bench. Do you remember the time when FUFC was founded in ’07? Well, Yu Tokisaki was back then a 28 years-old defender, born and raised in Fukushima, who played seven seasons for Shonan Bellmare. After a spell with Mito HollyHock, he opted to go back to his hometown and join FC Pelada Fukushima. You see where I’m going with this, right?

In ’08, Yu Tokisaki was asked to be the first manager-ever of FUFC. And he accepted, while his brother Rui – a Toho Bank employee, the main shareholder of the club – was playing under his guidance (and he’ll stay with FUFC through 2014, scoring even one goal in J3). Tokisaki was supposed to coach, but instead played until 2011. He eventually returned again to Fukushima in 2012-13, the two years when the club reached professional status.

At that point, Tokisaki became an exchange asset in the partnership with Shonan Bellmare. He was appointed as a coach for the U-18 and remained there for seven years, until the tide brought him back again to Fukushima. In 2020, he was in the staff of Takeo Matsuda, but he got promoted this season and he’s doing a pretty good job. In fact, Tokisaki has just won the award for “Manager of the Month” in J3 for August.

Yes, because meanwhile Fukushima have won four games in a row, and they look like a serious contender despite losing Ismaila. They replaced him with two gamble-loans – Kota Mori from Renofa Yamaguchi and Gabriel Okechukwu from Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo –, while hoping that Hiroki Higuchi’s form won’t sweat until the end of the season.

Despite the Summer break, the moral seems high within the team.

Can they do it? It seems out of their league, but we said the same of SC Sagamihara last year and they’re indeed playing J2. Outside of Kataller Toyama, no club in J3 appears to be stable enough to surely win promotion. A surprise could be on the cards, uh? What if Fukushima are destined to play a derby? Not the regional one against Iwaki FC in J3, but the “partnership derby” against Shonan in J2? Who knows?

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