J. Finest Hour – Shonan Bellmare (2014)

In 2020, Kawasaki Frontale left an undeniable mark on the history of Japanese football. Despite a season hit by the COVID-pandemic and the damages that the outbreak is still making 18 months later, the club not only won a title, but the memory and the hearts of neutral fans around the world. Indeed, we asked ourselves: was the 2020 version of Frontale the best a J. League aficionado has ever seen?

In the end… yes, it’s true. Stats-wise, Frontale won 83 points over 34 games (26 wins, 5 draws, 3 losses, with 88 goals scored and 31 allowed). Doing a basic calculation, Toru Oniki and his boys collected an average of 2.44 points per game. And they monopolized the Best XI at the end of the season (nine players out of 11). Therefore, we went deeper: was this the best club ever seen on a Japanese pitch since 1993?

Kawasaki were by far – at least 0.4 PPG – the best team ever witnessed in Japanese professional football. Then the final question: which other teams have done this? Well, we scour the history books to look out for the best teams in all three professional division over the last three decades. If Frontale wrote history, it’s also fair to celebrate whoever did it before them. Game recognizes game.

This is “J. Finest Hour”, the column talking about the teams who ruled Japanese football in terms of the best in one single season. The fourth and final episode tells the tale of the ones who were holding the record for best PPG in one season of professional football. They didn’t achieve it in J1 or J3, but in J2: in 2014, Shonan Bellmare gathered an astonishing average of 2.40 PPG. It was their record, before Kawasaki Frontale came along in 2020.

One of the best games in their season? A 6-0 away win in Chiba against JEF United.

This is basically the story of the strongest team J. League has ever seen in its history, before Oniki and his squad swept them away from the history books. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story.

Where were they coming from?

What about Shonan Bellmare? Born in 1968 and renamed “Bellmare Hiratsuka” from a few years in the 90s, the club joined J. League in ’94, but struggled to gather attention. Kanagawa was already behind the two teams in Yokohama. Despite that, they won the Emperor’s Cup in their first season, clinched the Asian Club Winners’ Cup trophy in ’95 and counted on a young Hidetoshi Nakata for almost four years.

Unfortunately, that was the pinnacle before the relegation in ’99. The drop to J2 wasn’t just an accident: Shonan stayed in the second division for a full decade, away from the promotion race… until Yasuharu Sorimachi – who featured in the 90s for the club – became the head coach and snatched a long-awaited promotion. Unfortunately, it lasted only for 2010 (with a 21 games winless run in J1) and then Sorimachi left in 2011.

That was a key-moment, though, because it led to the hiring which changed the history of Bellmare forever. Despite being South Korean, Cho Kwi-jae was born in Sakyō (a ward of Kyoto), had a modest J. League career through the 90s and went to Cologne to study for two years after retiring. When he came back, he worked with several clubs – Cerezo Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale, among others – before joining Shonan and beginning his rise.

Maybe these images lost touch after the scandal of power harassment, which has led to Cho being let go by Bellmare in 2019, but no doubt you can see the will and the passion in his eyes.

When he was hired as a top coach, he had been an assistant coach for the first team for three seasons. And it was a tough situation: the club actually risked bankruptcy in 2012. Nevertheless, Bellmare found their way back to J1, only to drop again immediately (this time with less shame). But that relegation was just the beginning to draw the start of the most glorious time the club ever had.

Why did they rule?

A clean slate. That’s what Shonan needed back then, and they did so. They did more than just that: their recruitment among universities was pure gold. At least six regular J. Leaguers arrived in Hiratsuka only that Winter, plus a couple of good acquisitions and some intelligent loans from J1 clubs. It all worked once it was put together in a 3-4-2-1 line-up by Cho.

Once they started racking eight or nine wins in a row, someone realized they were not underestimating Shonan: Bellmare were going to dominate the league. So much that, once they faced their first stop – a 1-0 away defeat against Ehime FC –, Shonan had already 12 points of advantage on heavy favorites, Júbilo Iwata. The whole machine worked so well they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to.

No team remained unbeaten in a two-legged challenge with Bellmare: all the 21 teams in the J2 that year lost at least once against Shonan. They racked up 101 points and clinched promotion with nine (NINE!) games to go, after a 2-2 draw away in… Kyoto. Ironical to think that, given how Cho is now managing the team and he was born there.

You could almost recite the starting eleven as a prayer. Akimoto; Endo, Maruyama, Misao; Fujita, Nagaki, Kikuchi (both Shunsuke and Daisuke); Okada, Taketomi; Wellington.

The main heroes

Like we said, some operations were clever. Take Yuichi Maruyama: back then, the current Grampus captain was loaned to Shonan to gain some pitch time. Despite being already 24 years old, the season at Bellmare was the first full year as a starter, appearing 41 times. He learned a lot and he brought back that experience alongside him, becoming a key-element for both FC Tokyo and Nagoya Grampus.

And what about Wataru Endo? He had a precocious start as a professional player, since already Sorimachi launched him in the last games of 2010. Endo was just 17 years-old, but that gave him to earn more and more experience. Cho couldn’t rely too much on him in 2013 (because of an injury), but at 21 he had become a non-renounceable factor for Bellmare (both as a central defender and as a holding midfielder).

Then Bellmare had a pair of creative players in Daisuke Kikuchi and Kosuke Taketomi. Both their careers promised way more than it happened after 2014, but in that season they both lighted up J2 with strong performances: Taketomi scored nine, Kikuchi eight. Both then went on to play for Urawa Red Diamonds and both are now back in J2 around the age of 30 (Taketomi under Cho in Kyoto, Kikuchi in Tochigi).

And what about up front? Cho needed a good number 9, so they approached Wellington Luis de Souza. Back then, the Brazilian striker had a spell in Europe with Hoffenheim, then he came back to Brazil to play non-pro football. Bellmare gave him another shot, and it worked out pretty well: he scored 20 goals in 38 games, getting the attention of several J. League clubs. It’s a season which helped Wellington building a CV in Japan.

Some numbers

To testify the strength of that season, a few numbers might help in put in perspective.

14. Those are the wins clinched from Matchday 1. 42 points to kill the competition right away.

95.7%. It’s the percentage win from the first 23 matches, of which Shonan won… 22. We mentioned the loss in Ehime in Matchday 15 and there are going to be two more defeats – against V-Varen Nagasaki and Consadole Sapporo – but winning so many matches right from the get-go is impressive.

23. It’s the number of clean sheets Akimoto bagged that season. More than 50% of Bellmare matches in that 2014 ended with the Shonan goalie able to keep his record unbeaten.

2. The only matchdays where Shonan didn’t end the day as a table leader. Fun fact: they were Matchday 1 and 2.

Where are they now?

In 2015, Shonan Bellmare didn’t just survive in J1: they thrived. They ended eight on the table, their best season in a long time (probably the best-ever?). Despite getting relegated again in 2016, the team guided by Cho needed just one season to regain back its J1 status. They also won the J. League Cup in 2018 and then the magic streak of J1 seasons in a row might end this year, since Bellmare are risking the relegation.

  • Just bought from Ehime FC, Yota Akimoto played all the games from that legendary season. His back-up, young Yuji Kajikawa, didn’t stand a chance to play. Nevertheless, he’s now at Marinos and had even a shot at being a starter for the defending champions in 2020, after some good performances with Tokushima Vortis.
  • Too many fine midfielders in Hiratsuka, right? Kikuchi, Ryota Nagaki, Endo… not too much space for Ken Iwao, who will leave then Bellmare to join Tokushima Vortis… and the rest is history.
  • Only two players scored 10 or more goals in that team: one was Wellington, the other was Shohei Okada, loaned by Sagan Tosu. Incredibly, Okada’s career didn’t go much beyond that breakthrough season: he scored 14 goals in 2014, more than he bagged in the six years after that loan (13), spent between Sagan Tosu and Thespakusatsu Gunma in all three professional division of Japanese football.

And that’s a wrap for this column! This was the final episode of “J. Finest Hour”. We hope you enjoyed this trip to Memory Lane and you can catch back anything you missed: if you want to read our previous episodes, here they are (Jubilo ’02Sanfrecce ’08 and Frontale ‘04).

Stay tuned for other contents and the J. League in general: it’s gonna be a fun ride until the end of the year.

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