Quicksands

December 8th, 2013. It’s almost 3 p.m. at the Tottori Bank Bird Stadium when the referee whistles the end. The home crowd can’t believe it, while there’s running all around by the guests. It’s the second leg of the JFL Relegation Playoffs and, with a bit of surprise, Kamatamare Sanuki have just become a new member of the 2014 J2 League, after winning 1-0 away in the second game.

The disbelief in the crowd in Tottori can’t be even imagined. After drawing 1-1 away, there were good chances of staying in J2 for the fourth year in a row, but it didn’t happen. A goal by Shunta Takahashi was enough to lose everything. But the writings were on the wall: the home squad hasn’t won a game in J2 since July, living through a 20-matches winless streak.

It’s strange though because life in J2 was good. Three years of surviving despite being on (probably) the worst budget. Nevertheless, there’s hope: the home crowd feels like next year will be the one where they come back to J2. In the end, J3 League will start in 2014 and Gainare is the only club with Machida Zelvia to have some second tier-experience. It should be easy to be in contention for the title.

Almost ten years later, Gainare Tottori never went through with that wish. Stuck in J3, the club seems on a never-ending spiral, where you can see neither more risks nor some trust for the future. It’s a condition that some clubs risk living through, but it’s different when you have a story in J2. This almost feels like a B-side for this article JLR wrote in 2016.

From Teachers to Pros

Before the professionalism, Gainare Tottori mainly went through the same route for all of today’s pro-teams. Founded in 1983 as “Tottori Teachers Soccer Club” and renamed “SC Tottori” in 1989, this reality reached the Japan Football League in 2001, back when it represented the third tier of Japanese football. It was so long ago that Tokushima Vortis were actually called “Otsuka Pharmaceuticals”.

Nevertheless, after a few years, the club changed its name to “Gainare Tottori” in 2007. Three years later, a solid JFL campaign under manager Takeo Matsuda brought the club to winning the JFL title, with a 15 points-margin on the runners-up and with an average of 3,489 people on the stands. It was a time to dream, and there were the right people to realize such a dream.

On the pitch, two men guided the club: former national team members Toshihiro Hattori and Masayuki Okano. Matsuda stayed in the dugout for 2011, when Gainare conquered a solid result: there were no relegations back then from J2, but no last place for Tottori, who took some satisfactions along the way: six points against Shonan, wins against Consadole, Yokohama FC and Kyoto Sanga.

2012 was even better, with Gainare coming 20th out of 22 teams, with a +6 over relegated Machida Zelvia. They had the smallest budget and crowd in the league, but it didn’t matter. Strong home performances kept the club in J2, but for 2013, the story was totally different: from the Summer, Gainare were always at risk and then faced relegation after losing against Kamatamare Sanuki (oh, and they also violated the “Road and Transportation Act” in a bizarre event).

A Struggling Life in J3

The maiden season in J3 wasn’t that bad… but it didn’t produce the hoped results. Gainare came fourth, 22 points shy of winners Zweigen Kanazawa, and 16 from runners-up Nagano Parceiro. 2015 went even worse, when Tottori ended sixth, 28 points shy of the Top 2, Renofa Yamaguchi and Machida Zelvia. It was a massive hill to climb, although they found a new local hero in Fernandinho, former Gamba Osaka.

Yeah, the players. Many interesting Brazilians played over the years in Tottori: as of today, Fernandinho is still the foreign player with the most goals scored in J3 and a symbol in Tottori. Marinos’ Eduardo played there in JFL, Vitor Gabriel was an interesting player and Leonardo had his breakthrough season in Tottori. And what about the Japanese prospects? Masato Nakayama, Naoto Misawa, Junya Kato, Masamichi Hayashi and Rikito Inoue… excellent J. Leaguers.

But the results on the table felt worrisome. In 2016, Gainare dropped to 15th, only to drop even further in 2017, when they ended up last. Several managers were changed – six indeed, with Daisuke Sudo and Riki Takagi having the best point-per-game ratio. Nevertheless, even now there’s no sign of change, despite Kim Jong-songthe architect of FC Ryukyu’s rise to J2 – being in charge.

Sure, Tottori won the “J3 Fair Play Award” for times in a row (who knows about 2022…), but general manager Masayuki Okano – yes, the same hero from the night in Kuala Lumpur in 1997, when Japan qualified for the first World Cup ever – hasn’t been able to turn this club into one that could constantly challenge for the top. But that’s not the only reason for these struggles.

Leonardo in J3? Best striker ever seen, tied with Kagoshima United’s Noriaki Fujimoto.

What’s wrong?

The first hurdle is the financial situation. Tottori had some problems already in 2008, when they had to raise 200 million yen to solve the financial loss. This reverberated on the stadium’s situation too, which was deemed “not fit” for J1 license between 2013 and 2015 due to a lack of sufficient toilets and too few seats. But even getting the license for J2 became hard between 2015 and 2017.

Managing the debt became the main aim of the club since solving the financial situation was the need for the future of Gainare Tottori. GM Okano even went further, promoting a sort of strange “fisherman project”, where donations to the club saw you getting awarded with marine products from Sakaiminato City. The strategy worked and the so-called “hometown tax” produced almost 27 million yen in revenues.

The other problem is the Prefecture itself. Like Stuart Smith said in the piece liked in the first part of this piece, there’s no nationwide recognition of Tottori, known for its beaches, but nothing more than that. Put in there also a strange trend: when it comes down to snatching talents from bigger clubs, Gainare hasn’t had any major bargain in the market department (Ken Tajiri has been dreadful in the last two years, Naoya Uozato is so-and-so… is it really Ryuji Sawakami the best that can be done?)

On the other hand, though, it’s tough to see Gainare dropping back to JFL when relegations will be introduced (a faith that clubs like YSCC, Azul Claro, or Kamatamare could actually risk). Are they on the way to becoming J3’s Mito HollyHock? Probably that wasn’t the dream on that cold night of December 2013.

Worst day until now in J3? Last year, Gainare’s 8-1 home loss against Parceiro in 2021.

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