Chris WalmsleyComment

A RACE TO THE TOP: BUILDING A FOOTBALL CLUB IN JAPAN'S RACING HEARTLAND

Chris WalmsleyComment
A RACE TO THE TOP: BUILDING A FOOTBALL CLUB IN JAPAN'S RACING HEARTLAND

You might think there is a lack of appetite for football in Mie as it is one of only nine prefectures in Japan still without a professional football club. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The close proximity of the city of Nagoya means that J.League founders Nagoya Grampus Eight have long drawn decent support from the area. Recently, a number of organisations within Mie have set their sights on building squads that can compete on a national stage.

Leading the charge are Suzuka Unlimited, based in the same city as Formula One’s famed Suzuka Circuit; Veertien Mie, originating from the city of Kuwana; and FC Ise Shima, from the south of the region.

In 2016 all three clubs were pitted against each other in the Tokai Shakaijin Soccer League Division One, a regional league comprised of the eight best amateur and semi-professional teams from Shizuoka, Gifu, Aichi, and Mie. As one of a number of competitions that make up level five of the Japanese football pyramid, this Division guarantees just a single spot at the annual Regional Football Champions League to the winners, and subsequently, a chance of promotion to the JFL, the top tier of Japanese non-league football.

Before getting in touch with one of the clubs I wanted to learn more about the history of football in the prefecture so I arranged to meet Shinji Kuki, executive director of the Mie FA, ahead of the Mie Shakaijin Soccer Tournament final back in April 2016. A hard fought game saw Suzuka run out 2-1 winners over Veertien to claim the first piece of silverware of the season. It was a reminder that there would be few easy games in the upcoming Tokai league championship. With so many strong sides all vying to go up, I was keen to find out if there had been any earlier attempts to bring professional football to Mie.

“There was in Yokkaichi,” came Kuki’s response. “Prior to the J.League beginning around 1994, the company Kosumo Sekiyu (Cosmo Oil) used to have a team participating at what is now the J2 level. When the J.League started, the company was still in the middle of the making a decision about trying to join the professional ranks. In the end Cosmo Oil decided to withdraw their backing...so the citizens of Yokkaichi tried to get new sponsors...but it didn’t work out.”

Surprised that there had already been such a high profile attempt I asked him if Cosmo Oil Yokkaichi used to have a lot of fans. “Yes. The teams that are now FC Tokyo, Kawasaki Frontale, and Kashiwa Reysol were playing at the same level as Cosmo Oil Yokkaichi at that time.”

To put that into perspective, in 2011 Kashiwa Reysol became the ninth club to be crowned J.League champions, while FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale are now established as two of Japan’s most well-supported clubs with both able to boast of average attendances above 20,000 over the last two seasons.

I was getting the impression that the lack of sponsorship for a professional outfit in Yokkaichi had been an opportunity missed, so I wondered if Kuki thought things would be different this time around. “It is difficult because now there are many teams who want to reach the J.League in Japan so it is very difficult to achieve that...hopefully we will have a professional team. For the Mie FA it is desirable to have a club at that level.” He appeared cautious about the future and his prophecies also came with a word of warning.

“They [the J.League clubs] rely on company sponsorship too much and when the results are bad and the sponsors withdraw their money, they no longer have enough money to sustain top level football and they drop off. There are already a few examples like this...so personally I wonder whether it is a good thing to be highly reliant on sponsors in order to obtain J.League football. Fundamentally to have a successful J.League team, clubs need to be more closely linked to the local communities and it is important they make contributions to the local areas they serve...I feel the J.League is going away from that at the moment.”

I’d grown up thinking it would be nice to have a proper local team.
— Masakazu Yoshida

Having enjoyed my chat with Kuki, six months would pass before I could return to Mie and find out more about one of its most ambitious clubs, Suzuka Unlimited. By this time the Division One season was drawing to a close and Suzuka were still in with a chance of qualifying for the Regional Football Champions League through the back door as one of the best runners-up. I pencilled in an interview with managing director, Masakazu Yoshida, at the AGF Suzuka Athletics Stadium following a home derby with FC Ise Shima.

The hosts coasted to a comprehensive 6-0 victory. A result that would confirm second place behind runaway league champions, FC Kariya. It was the first time I’d watched a league game at this level in Japan and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of football displayed by the Suzuka Unlimited players. Not only did they look fit and organised, they were comfortable in possession and had genuine class in the final third thanks to captain Tsukasa Ozawa, a man with over 120 games for J2’s Mito Hollyhock under his belt. Still only 28 years old, he will surely be playing at a higher level again soon (and indeed, he will be for the 2017 season, having signed for JFL newcomers FC Imabari).

I was also keeping a close eye on Suzuka Unlimited’s centre back, Ryu Fujii. He’d originally caught my attention with an assured display in the Mie Shakaijin Soccer Tournament final, and again he looked the part. Very cool under pressure with the ball at his feet, he likes to carry it out of the defence and demonstrates a good range of passing, both long and short, rarely giving the ball away. His style of play reminded me of Burnley’s James Tarkowski, and I’m sure he is another player who could comfortably step up to a better standard.

Despite the inferior opposition, I felt Suzuka Unlimited looked like they could at the very least hold their own in the league above, and I wasn’t the only one to take note. A crowd of around 800 had made their way down to see the match, a regular occurrence throughout the season, and a figure which dwarfs many attendances in the JFL. It was pleasing to see many children in attendance who were very vocal in their support, clearly enthused to have a local team to shout about.

When the game had finished I went in search of Yoshida and found him orchestrating post-match events behind the main stand. Aged 35, he is fairly young to be a managing director, so I kicked off proceedings by asking him why he’d got involved with Suzuka Unlimited. “I'm from Kameyama...which is next to Suzuka. I’d grown up thinking it would be nice to have a proper local team, not a Nagoya team, ever since I watched Nagoya Grampus play at the Suzuka Sports Garden 25 years ago. The J.League had just been founded and I thought it was great. So I came back to Suzuka and now I work for them as a salaryman.”

To date one of the biggest decisions that Yoshida has overseen as managing director has been the renaming of the club from Suzuka Rampole to Suzuka Unlimited. A change that came into effect for the 2016 season. “The last owner has got the trademark rights for Rampole. We couldn’t take these over so we changed the name of the club,” he explained.

But why ‘Unlimited’? An unusual choice even by Japan’s eccentric naming conventions. “There are many teams in Japan which have names using made up words such as Albirex [Niigata], but people from other countries won’t understand the meaning, so we thought it would be more effective to have a proper English word in the name as it is an international language that can be easily understood around the world.”

After witnessing such an emphatic display on the pitch, I wanted to know if Yoshida had been pleased with how the 2016 season had turned out. “It is hard to say at the moment. If we cannot go to the JFL this season then it has been a failure…[the aim was] promotion to the JFL and winning the Tokai Shakaijin League…[I’m disappointed] that we couldn’t win the league...because honestly, I thought we were going to win...but FC Kariya are strong, they have won 13 games in a row.”

I sensed that footballing wise, the year hadn’t gone to plan, especially as Yoshida alluded to having five professional players on the books and a budget on par with teams already in the JFL. They had clearly invested heavily in terms of players wages in the hunt for success, but what about matters behind the scenes? This time he was more upbeat. “As a director, we have developed better relations with the local community. We have banners at the Suzuka AEON mall and also a local lorry company has put our stickers on 80 of their lorries and these are now driving around the area.

“We also go around local schools with our soccer school. We get more fans if kids start to get interested in us, as then their parents and grandparents will come along too. Something I’d like to do from next year onwards is to have a shuttle bus running from the AEON Mall to the matches. 30,000 to 40,000 people visit there every weekend...they can come to the mall by car, do some shopping, come and watch the match, and then go back and spend more time at the mall once it's finished.

“[But] first we have to get good results. I think if the results come the city will follow us. The only thing we can do is get good results. Twenty-five years ago there was a J.League match at Suzuka Sports Garden once a year and the stadium was full. So people like that are waiting for us. At the moment we represent the city of Suzuka. But of course we cannot run a J.League team just in Suzuka so I would like to expand our reach to include the cities of Kameyama, Yokkaichi, and Tsu in the future.”

As Veertien Mie and FC Ise Shima have similar aspirations to Suzuka Unlimited I quizzed Yoshida about the rivalry. Would it be beneficial to have more than one J.League outfit in the same prefecture? It was an idea Kuki had warmed to during my first visit, but Yoshida wasn’t so convinced, “To be honest I don’t think it’s a good idea. If there are a few J.League clubs in the same area then we have to waste money competing with the rivals, when it comes to things like attracting new fans...I don’t want us to use the money on advertisements and so on to compete with others in the same prefecture.”

Whatever Suzuka Unlimited’s stated ambitions are they will have no chance of entering the J.League unless they get approved for the appropriate J.League licenses. The first step of this process for non-league sides is to be granted J.League 100 year plan status, which is achieved by fulfilling a large set of criteria that demonstrates an organisation's readiness to function as a professional entity. As Suzuka Rampole they had previously failed in their attempts to match these requirements, but under new ownership, Yoshida could foresee a brighter outcome.

“We want to apply for the J.League license in the near future. Actually, we originally applied when we used to be Suzuka Rampole but it wasn’t approved. During the last application, they had issues with our financial situation and our involvement with the community. Our financial situation is becoming more stable as our parent company has changed. After that, it depends on how many local people come to the matches and how many local companies support us, so I think we have a chance of getting the license this time.”

I pressed Yoshida for a timeframe. When would Suzuka Unlimited be able to realise its dream of J.League football? “We want to enter J3 within two years...in five years time J2. In ten years time, J1...the Suzuka Sports Garden can already hold matches up to the J3 level.” But did he really think Mie had the potential to sustain a top flight football club? “This is my personal feeling but I think it is possible. In J1 you only need to have 15,000 attendances. I think that it is not that big a number. There are a lot of factories and people with money in Mie, so I think economically it is possible.”

We discussed what other changes might be in store if they were to get promoted and one of the main problems to arise was ticket prices. At the moment entry is free, but in the division above tickets could cost up to 1500 yen. Yoshida thought that this would have a negative impact on attendances in the short term, especially as the number of away fans is likely to drop quite drastically due to playing teams from throughout Japan and not just the Tokai region.

The second big issue was stadiums. If Suzuka Unlimted are to go higher than J3 they will have to ensure that their stadium meets the J.League requirements for holding J1 and J2 matches. To do this, they will have to improve the Suzuka Sports Garden or even build a new football stadium—two options that Yoshida thinks the club cannot do without the help of the Mie prefectural and Suzuka city governments.

Sadly support for this type of infrastructure project can be scarce in Japan where cash-strapped local authorities tend not to prioritise sport. Would things be different in Suzuka? Again he was positive.

“I think the Suzuka city government is capable of supporting us because they already have Suzuka Circuit and are experienced at holding international events. Yes [I think they understand the importance of sport]. Suzuka city government has got a motorsports department. They are enthusiastic about Formula One, therefore I think it will be the same for football...if we go up to the JFL next year we need to change the showers in the stadium to hot water showers. So we will make this request to the Suzuka city government”

Yoshida seemed happy with the way things were progressing and optimistic about the future. Therefore with the interview drawing to a close, I decided to get a final word about why he thought a football club could prosper in Suzuka.

“An economic magazine said Suzuka was the number one city for sports in Japan. So while motorsports are popular in Suzuka, football also has the potential to be popular.” But can football gain traction in Japan’s motor racing heartland? “This is a big chance...people will automatically think that team must be from the F1 Suzuka. But football is the world’s most popular sport so people will get to know Suzuka for the football too”

*Since this article was written Suzuka Unlimited and Veertien Mie both made it to the end of season Regional Football Champions League finals. In a dramatic last game the Mie clubs played off against each other for the final promotion spot to the JFL with Veertien Mie running out 4-1 winners. The first and only time they had beaten Suzuka Unlimited in 2016.

By Chris Walmsley. Thanks to Asuka Horisaka for arranging and translating all of the interviews. Follow Chris on Instagram at Japan Football https://instagram.com/japanfootball/

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