Japanese Non-league Football News

Emperor's Cup Fourth Round
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Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Previews
JNFN here begins a series of articles that aim to provide a preview of the forthcoming Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off competition. The First Round groups will be playing their matches over the weekend of Saturday 25th November, with the winners of each going through to the Final Stage the following weekend. We begin as tradition dictates with Group A, staged in Nagasaki and made up of Banditonce Kobe, Norbritz Hokkaido and Fagiano Okayama…

Fans of Fagiano Okayama at the start of the season were nervous about prospects for the year ahead. They knew that their region would be allocated only one position in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off, whilst at the same time 2005 champions Sagawa Kyubin Chugoku, FC Central Chugoku and Hiroshima Fujita SC all seemed likely to offer pretty stiff competition. Put another way: if the Pheasants wanted to stay in the running to achieve their ambition of a JFL place, they had to see off all-comers and win the Chugoku League.

And after round 2 at the beginning of May, this was looking an extremely unlikely outcome indeed. For although Fagiano had travelled to Hamada for the match with newly-promoted FC Central full of confidence - having the week previously beaten Renofa Yamaguchi 5-1 in front of more than 4000 local fans - they went on to suffer a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of the 2005 Shimane Prefectural League title winners.

08 Nov 06 - Fagiano Okayama striker Jefferson goes for goal

Fagiano Okayama striker Jefferson goes for goal

But the team bounced back, demonstrating remarkable resilience as they raced to the top of the league via a series of comfortable victories over the weaker teams, and then finally gaining revenge on FC Central with a 2-1 win in early July. By the time the signing was announced in early September of former Sagan Tosu and Yokohama FC striker Jefferson, there was a five-point gap between Fagiano and their nearest challengers. A 2-1 defeat to Fujita came as an unexpected late hiccup and the title was not finally confirmed until the last day of the regular season, but since then the club have retained the services of Jefferson and brought in former J-League defenders Yasuhiro Nemoto and Hiroyoshi Kuwabara from New Wave Kitakyushu, together with Tokyo Verdy 1969 squad men Takaki Shigemitsu and Koji Matsuura.

In the 2005 Play-off tournament, Fagiano were unlucky to find themselves drawn in the Group of Death, lined up against the cut-throat ambition of Rosso Kumamoto and Tohoku League side Grulla Morioka. Despite taking the lead in their two matches, they ended up on the losing side both times to be eliminated at the First Round stage. There’s no doubt that the 2006 season will have prepared them better for the fight that lies ahead, and that the muscular Brazilian Jefferson will prove a handful for any defence at this level, but the match with Banditonce Kobe seems likely to hold the key to Fagiano Okayama's hopes of making progress.

For Banditonce - a 2005 re-launch of the Central Kobe club, which itself had its roots in a Hyogo Teachers team that first competed in the Kansai League as far back as 1976 - shocked everyone with the rapidity of their development twelve months ago. 2-1 wins over Nangoku Kochi and group favourites Shizuoka FC saw the Kansai champions through the First Round and within touching distance of the JFL itself. With three teams going up from the Final Stage, Banditonce were nevertheless edged out into last place after defeats from Rosso and JEF United Amateurs, thus forcing them back to Regional League level for 2006.

08 Nov 06 - Banditonce Kobe’s Ryosuke Kanzaki

Banditonce Kobe’s Ryosuke Kanzaki

Coach Yuji Hashimoto may only be 36 but has good experience in charge of local JFL outfits Sagawa Kyubin Osaka and Sagawa Printing, with the added credibility of a pro career that included stints at Gamba Osaka and Sagan Tosu. He has pieced together a squad that breezed through the league season this year without breaking sweat and finished fully nine points in front of FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu, their copybook blotted only by a shock mid-season 1-0 defeat at struggling Kyoto Shiko Club.

With something of a focus on a strong back line, the key member of Hashimoto's side is big ex-Kawasaki Frontale defender and 2006 Kansai League MVP winner Ryosuke Kanzaki, although a weakness between the sticks has been addressed with the loan acquisition of Taiji Furuta, a 24-year-old-keeper with J-League experience from Tokushima Vortis. The one other player to have joined the club on loan for the Play-offs is Sagawa Kyubin Osaka defender Kim Myon Hi, but Banditonce Kobe are gutsy, physical and determined opposition, who look narrow favourites to take Group A and go on to the Final Stage.

Competing alongside Fagiano and Banditonce are Norbritz Hokkaido - title winners in their region four years running, but with a poor record when it comes to facing up to opposition from elsewhere in the country. In the 2005 Play-offs, the former Hokkaido Electric Power team were matched up with JEF Amateurs, TDK Akita and Nagano Elsa, but were only able to manage a draw against the latter as, like Fagiano, they fell at the first hurdle. In this season's All-Japan Shakaijin tournament, they qualified as normal but were knocked out in the First Round by mid-ranking Hokushinetsu League side Fervorosa, while Nippon Steel Oita accounted for them in the Emperor's Cup, again in the opening round.

08 Nov 06 - Norbritz Hokkaido celebrate winning a place in the Emperor’s Cup First Round proper

Norbritz Hokkaido celebrate winning a place in the Emperor’s Cup First Round proper

The problem faced by Norbritz Hokkaido is that their local competition is probably the weakest of all the nine Regional Leagues. Sides such as Tokachi Fairsky and Thank FC therefore offer them little in the way of way of credible opposition at home, but when it comes to taking on better organised, coached and financed teams from other parts of Japan, the Red Lightning are all too often found wanting - the step up is simply too far to make. This is not a new situation, but one that has continually dogged the development of football in Japan’s northernmost outpost, which has never without outside help produced a club of its own to compete on the national stage (current J2 side Consadole Sapporo are based on a Toshiba works team that moved from Kanto).

But for Norbritz, hope in the very short term rests on the shoulders of the team's star striker, 24-year-old ex-Sapporo University player Yusuke Okato, to get the goals and to provide some kind of threat to opposition defences. Given that there is likely to be no finance available to bring in any loan signings for the duration of the Play-off cometition, the club’s record unfortunately suggests that their chances of success in Nagasaki are slight indeed.
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