Growing on the Dock of the Bay

Strange year in the Japan Football League, the fourth division of Japanese football. In the most prestigious amateur league, we actually got an open title race. Honda FC, the usual suspects, had to face not just one, but two teams coming for their crown. One was Nara Club, finally on the verge of having the long-awaited run at promotion and bring the prefecture to professional football.

The other was a bit unexpected. And it culminated in a strange situation: when FC Osaka hosted MIO Biwako Shiga, they were not 100% sure to go up. They had the points, and the requirements… but they were lacking the 2,000 average viewers threshold to meet J.League demands. At the same time, MIO Biwako Shiga fans were not that far from the Hanazono Rugby Stadium and promotion to FC Osaka would have meant… they would have been safe from relegation.

A whopping crowd of 12,183 viewers showed up and everything went well. FC Osaka met the requirements – averaging 2,563 spectators in 2022 – and MIO Biwako Shiga can enjoy JFL also in 2023. But that means also that FC Osaka are finally among the big boys of Japanese football. And if Nara Club’s promotion has been in the works for the last few years – we talked to Julían Marín Bazalo two years ago about it –, this is indeed a surprise.

In 26 years of life, would have FC Osaka ever dreamt of reaching this point? Will they be a real variable in J3, especially if relegations will be official? And mostly: how can they grow a following in a zone of Japan where Gamba and Cerezo are giants? Sure, they could be an “unofficial” reserves team for both clubs, but… what’s the aim for FC Osaka?

The third side of Osaka

Gamba Osaka are the direct emanation of Panasonic, and they’ve been involved in J.League since the opening season, being founded in 1991. Cerezo Osaka, on the other hand, were pushed by Yanmar, and reached J.League in 1995 after one year in JFL. Both clubs have written illustrious pages of Japanese football, so you wonder if a third environment was really needed in that area.

R-Dash, a famous marketing agency, was behind the idea. On their website, you can still find some referrals to this new club: they even had a minor partnership with Gremio in Brazil. But this project didn’t spark right away. It took them several years to get going, and they won the Osaka Prefectural Football League only in 2007. They reached the Kansai Soccer League five years later, where they started making a name for themselves.

They immediately clinched promotion from the second tier to the topflight, recording solid results. They even featured for the first time in the Emperor’s Cup in 2014, losing to Zweigen Kanazawa (back then, the inaugural J3 Champions). Leading the group was Shigeru Morioka, who probably doesn’t say anything to you… but he’s important:

  • For six years, he was a Gamba Osaka player, an integral part of rotation; he came back in 2002, staying until 2005 (he was indeed a part of the squad when Gamba won their first J.League title).
  • He then featured for Kyoto Sanga, Vissel Kobe, and closed his career for Banditonce Kakogawa.
  • He was among the players involved in the “Miracle of Miami” – when Japan defeated Brazil in the 1996 Olympic Games of Atlanta (although he didn’t play that match).
  • In the end, he got the head coach gig at FC Osaka from 2008 to 2015, while ending his career with the club in his first two years as a manager.

JFL Life

2014 was the right year. FC Osaka didn’t win the Kansai Soccer League – Nara Club did it – but they got a wild card and had an excellent tournament at the National Playoffs. They lost to Nara Club only at PKs and won the other two games to grant themselves a place in the 2015 Japan Football League, which from 2013 became the fourth tier of Japanese football after the birth of J3.

Generally speaking, FC Osaka comfortably rose to the mid-table and even had some impressive results. They knocked out Cerezo Osaka from Emperor’s Cup in 2015, and they found in Higashiosaka City their hometown, benefitting from the major renovations the local stadium went through for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But FC Osaka had their house in order under the steady guidance of Haruo Wada, who coached from 2016 to 2019.

They never fell under eighth place – which was reached three times. 2018 was the most impressive season for the club: despite Honda FC dominating and winning by a landslide, FC Osaka reached second place in front of Vanraure Hachinohe (who then got promoted to J3) and FC Imabari. Back then, they were missing two pieces of the puzzle: the average crowds and the results.

They struggled to make that final step, despite having some interesting players in their roster. Makoto Kawanishi was the Top Scorer in 2016 (he played all his career for FC Osaka, retiring last year); Ryota Nakamura, currently at Blaublitz Akita, had his beginnings for the Osaka-based side. Juninho, who played for Tochigi SC, is a J2 regular; Takumi Hamasaki, now at Yamaga, started from FC Osaka and even played in J1 with Sendai.

Dreaming Big

The license to play in J3 League was never a problem: it was granted to FC Osaka already in 2020. But 2022 felt like the right opportunity. Technical stability was guaranteed by Shinya Tsukahara, 37 years old, in charge since 2020: he was in the staff of Vissel Kobe’s U-18 squad before taking this job. At the same time, some moves were clever and other players rose.

Yusuke Imamura, a favorite of this page, came in from Azul Claro Numazu and scored seven goals. In general, one of the best attacks of the league distributed evenly the goals among their strikers: seven players scored at least two goals. Three more players – legendary Shusuke Sakamoto, Kazuya Mima, and Rikuto Kubofeatured in the Top 11 from the Japan Football League for the 2022 season.

FC Osaka have been able to shake the fear out of their system as well: in 30 matchdays, they’ve been in the Top 2 just for eight games. They were first only winning 4-0 away at MIO Biwako Shiga, on Matchday 13. Resilience and persistence were crucial, especially with Nara Club and Honda FC being tough opponents. They made it on Matchday 28, but they had to wait for the last home match to seal it.

Now what? We’re sure Gamba and Cerezo were pretty happy. At the end of 2020 – luckily, we would add – reserve teams were disbanded from J3. In the end, though, this might have hindered a bit the development of certain kids. Looking at the current rosters for the two teams, we could imagine 4-5 talents going to J3 – such as Taichi Kato, Yota Sato, Isa Sakamoto, Kohei Maki, and Hinata Kida.

But it also comes down to the objectives in J3 for the club. FC Osaka, what are you going to do? Just surviving, like Azul Claro Numazu and YSCC are doing? Or something more? We’ll find out soon.


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