The Drop

Ahhhh, J3 League. A crazy league, without all the fear though of J2. No need to think about failure, just about glory, because there are not going to be repercussions. You can field a J.League U-22 team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games (and wondering how much it helped), have a bunch of U-23 teams from J1 (even there: would have been better to rotate the clubs?), or engage in terrible seasons without fearing a drop to the amateur world.

Just to give you some numbers about it:

  • YSCC Yokohama have been able to retain their J3 spot despite coming last three times and being involved in the bottom two spots of the table four times.
  • There have been 14 games with 6+ goals of difference between the two teams.
  • The J.League U-22 selection have conceded 71 goals in 36 games in 2015, almost two per match.
  • Among promoted teams from JFL, they’ve all had pretty good seasons in their maiden campaigns in J3.

2023 will start to change all of that. Sure, the playoffs will begin in 2024 – so we’ll have our own crazy time to reach J2 from next season –, but a first change will enter this season: relegations are on. And sure, we’ll need to have JFL teams respecting certain criterias, so the bottom two teams might still avoid the drop. But the danger is finally there, and cheerlessly surviving within the league won’t be enough. It’s time to fight for your own survival, because being in J3 and in JFL makes (some) difference.

It’s not the first time that Japanese tiers are introducing relegations. We want to go back in time and see how it went the first time that happened for J1 and J2. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride, but worth the trip: we promise (if you ask us, our money is on FC Osaka and YSCC Yokohama to be favourites for the drop to the 2024 Japan Football League).

1998: the first time in J1 and Sapporo betrayed

The first time when J.League introduced the relegation system was in 1998. At the same time, Consadole Sapporo were not the “region-representing” team you think about today. Back then, they just relocated from Tokyo to Sapporo, lost the “Toshiba” denomination in 1996 and moved to the Hokkiado region. They sealed promotion from JFL to J1 in 1997, winning in style and accessing the top-flight, which was looking to expand to 18 teams.

But 1998 season was strange, because the relegation system wasn’t the one you know today. Basically JFA established a range of five teams to be involved, counting on the 1997 results as well. At the same time, the league already knew that Yokohama Flügels were about to be disbanded after the end of the season. JEF United Chiba, Avispa Fukuoka, and Vissel Kobe were in. Consadole actually ended their season on 14th place, but Gamba could count on the 1997 season’s results to avoid the tournament.

Avispa Fukuoka, who finished last, had to face Kawasaki Frontale – back then the runners-up from JFL. They won after extra time, and so they could enter the four teams-mini tournament to determine the relegated team, with JFL champions FC Tokyo taking their place. JEF United dispatched Avispa, and Consadole suffered a double loss against Vissel Kobe. A double-legged playoff between Fukuoka and Sapporo would have determined the drop.

Back then, Consadole Sapporo were a decent team anyway. 1998 J.League was arranged in the double-stage format, and Sapporo had a wonderful second part of the season. The squad was decent as well: Dido Havenaar in goal, Hugo Maradona in the midfield, and Jorge Dely Valdés as the striker. They changed the manager almost at the end of 1998 – sacking Hugo Fernández, bringing in Hajime Ishii – but it wasn’t enough. Losing at home against Flügels condemned Consadole to the mini-tournament and the fear of being relegated.

The final double-legged playoff against Avispa Fukuoka was terrible: Sapporo lost 1-0 in Fukuoka, only to collapse again in front of their home crowd 3-0. They’ll come back to J1 for the 2001 season, when they’ll actually avoid relegation. After that first relegation from J1, they suffered three more – in 2002, 2008, and 2012 –, but they’ve been able to retain their spot since their return to the top-flight in 2017.

2012: the first time in J2 and Machida (incredibly) dropped

Many teams were getting promoted from JFL to J2 before the J3 was born in 2014, and one of the most exciting seemed to be Machida Zelvia. The Tokyo-based outlet took care of business in the 2011 season, when two squads withdrew, and Sagawa Shiga (!) won the league in front of Nagano Parceiro, Zelvia, and Matsumoto Yamaga. Yoshinori Katsumata and Dragan Dimić scored 29 goals together, the club brought an average of 3,515 spectators to the stadium, and they seemed ready for the next step.

The second tier introduced the first change of relegation for 2012. All the clues pointed in an obvious direction: Gainare Tottori were labelled as the clear favourite to go back to JFL. But Machida made some changes, starting from the head coach: Ranko Popović left after promotion, only to see Osvaldo Ardiles taking charge. Unfortunately, the Argentinian wasn’t in his best form – Zelvia were actually the second-last appointment of his career, with Malaysia being the final stop of his coaching career.

Zelvia started decently, with 10 points in 12 games, but then it became impossible to see a win. Three and a half months between a 4-2 away win in Yokohama in late April and an away win in Chiba against JEF United Chiba in August. They struggled to find goals, despite having some promising players in the squad – Takafumi Suzuki, Koji Suzuki, Yoshihiro Shoji on loan. They won against direct rivals FC Gifu on Matchday 40, positioning themselves three points shy of salvation. Unfortunately, a draw in Mito and a home defeat against Shonan put the dream of salvation to bed.

2023: the first time in J3, who will be risking?

Of course, it’s a strange situation. 2023 will see a lot of sides struggling. Just going through some of them:

  • Will YSCC Yokohama be able to have enough quality to climb to 18th?
  • Will FC Osaka be deep enough to avoid the bottom two? (sorry, we don’t see Nara Club in that conversation)
  • Will Azul Claro Numazu find a purpose in life or risk the drop?
  • Will Vanraure Hachinohe digest the change in the dugout and avoid the worst?
  • Will SC Sagamihara ingest Kazuyuki Toda as a head coach and change their faith compared to 2022?
  • Are we going to get some surprise candidates for the drop – Kamatamare Sanuki, Fukushima United FC, or Tegevajaro Miyazaki?

It’s an open race. It’s an unknown situation, that most clubs can’t relate with. If you think of all the names we mentioned, only Kamatamare Sanuki and SC Sagamihara ever faced a relegation in their history. But it was from J2 League, and we think they both punched way above their weight – can you recall of big of an achievement was for Sanuki to comfortably avoid relegation for five straight seasons in the second tier? J3 might be an easier call, but it’ll take some time to adjust to that perspective.

And most of all: will someone come up from JFL? Yes, because that could be the other problem. 2023 JFL will see four teams starting with the possibility of reaching J3 because they have already a license: Kochi United, ReinMeer Aomori, Veertien Mie, and Verspah Oita. Among these ones, only Verspah seem to have the competitive continuity to challenge for the Top 4. But will they reach the threshold in terms of crowds? Okinawa SV would be super interesting, but will they obtain the necessary license?

In the end, the drop might be a fear that will take 1-2 seasons to kick in. But if it’s standing there – looking at the souls of all teams involved –, it’ll be for the better to improve the quality of the league.


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