Japanese Non-league Football News

Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Previews
JNFN today continues its previews of the forthcoming Regional League Championship Winners' Play-offs with a look at Group B. This is to be staged alongside Group A in Nagasaki and includes effectively a host team in the form of Kyushu League champions V Varen Nagasaki, alongside Japan Soccer College from Hokushinetsu and runners-up in the Kanto League, old hands Luminozo Sayama.

V Varen this year dominated the ultra-competitive Kyushu League, losing in 90 minutes only once and that in the last match of the season against Nippon Steel Oita. Alongside FC Gifu from Tokai, they are arguably the club best-placed to make a successful transition from Regional League football to the JFL, with decent financial backing in place and a local fanbase eager to see their team progress and thereby be in a position to compete with their neighbours across Kyushu, such as Rosso Kumamoto and Honda Lock in the JFL - not to mention the trio of J-League teams based on the island, Oita Trinita, Avispa Fukuoka and Sagan Tosu.

Formed off the back of Nagasaki Prefectural League side SC Ariake in early 2005, the club finished third behind Rosso and Okinawans of FC Ryukyu in their first Kyushu League season, but learned from their mistakes and re-grouped for 2006 under coach Fumiaki Iwamoto. Impressively, their team is based around local players and University students - although reserve striker Hidetoshi Nakayama was previously on the books of rivals Japan Soccer College - and it was this same basic squad that in October narrowly beat Shizuoka FC to win the All-Japan Shakaijin competition.

10 Nov 06 - Kyushu League champions V Varen Nagasaki

Kyushu League champions V Varen Nagasaki

But since then, V Varen have left no-one in any doubt as to the extent of their ambition - and the depth of their pockets – by announcing no fewer than eight short-term loan signings from the J-League and from other top Regional League sides, whom they hope will be enough to take the team up into the JFL. Leaving aside the important issue of whether the incomers will be able to gel successfully with the players already in situ, such financial clout alone obviously puts V Varen in a very strong position - and a combination of this, home advantage and their track record so far in 2006 means that they must be considered hot favourites to make it through the First Round at the very least.

Luminozo Sayama, on the other hand, rather scraped into the Play-offs this year, by virtue not of points or goal difference, but of having scored more goals than third-placed Yaita SC, the season's surprise package. Given that the title race in Kanto went down to the wire, the Honda works team can consider themselves to be surely the only club ever to confirm their success with a last-match-of-the-season 6-1 defeat, dished out to them in this instance by mid-ranking Saitama SC. The start of the campaign had been almost equally as painful, in that four matches in they had just four points on the board - a major shock, considering that since reaching Regional level in 1991, Luminozo have been one of the most successful teams in the Kanto League.

Indeed, 2006 is the ninth time that the club have competed in the Play-offs. Last year saw them lose out to eventual winners FC Ryukyu in the First Round, although in 2004, they had made it through to the Final Stage only to finish bottom of the group, with Mitsubishi Motors Mizushima, Ryutsu Keizai University and Honda Lock promoted ahead of them. Their record in the All-Japan Shakaijin tournament is more impressive, since the mid-90s finishing runners-up twice, joint winners twice and winning the competition outright in 2003, when they beat Shizuoka FC 3-0 after coasting to the final.

10 Nov 06 - Luminozo Sayama await their fate

Luminozo Sayama await their fate

But the Shakaijin is a competition in which the Saitama-based outfit have not participated at all in the last couple of years and, despite their comparative success in the League, the feeling remains that Luminozo's days as a real power within their region may be behind them - or at least, that Naoto Abe as coach needs time to piece together a stronger squad to see the club through a natural period in decline.

One factor that may have some impact upon Abe's ability to achieve such a goal is the attitude of their parent company. Honda have long insisted that they will not fund a professional J-League team, however well Honda FC might perform in the JFL - and although Luminozo as a Regional League club are a step too low down the pyramid for this to be a truly significant issue, it is a corporate policy that nevertheless sets a tone. As such, while their competitors have spent varying sums to bring in news players specifically for the period of the Play-offs, Luminozo Sayama will in contrast be represented by the same squad of players that has seen them through this league season and it therefore seems doubtful that they will have the quality to challenge V Varen in particular.

To be fair, however, only two players have moved to Japan Soccer College since the end of the league season – Shinichi Shuto, a 23-year-old goalkeeper, together with 18-year-old striker Ryuta Sasaki, both from the outer edges of the first team squad at J1 giants Kashima Antlers. JSC are famously part of the Albirex Niigata youth set-up, but have a genuinely unique status as a type of educational foundation running a range of training courses, as well as fielding teams of their own (the reserve side, known as CUPS Niigata, has just won promotion from the Prefectural League to Division 2 of the Hokushinetsu League).

10 Oct 06 - Ryuta Sasaki, JSC’s loan signing from Kashima Antlers

Ryuta Sasaki, JSC’s loan signing from Kashima Antlers

The club first appeared on a national stage in 2002, when as a Prefectural League side themselves they reached the finals of the All-Japan Shakaijin and overcame Yaita SC and Volca Kagoshima from Kyushu on the way to a Quarter-Final place. The following season, in the Hokushinetsu League for the first time, they triumphed in a narrow title race with Nagano Elsa and Ueda Gentian, although their resulting debut in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off ended in disappointment and a bottom place finish in their First Round group.

Having finished runners-up in the league in both 2004 and 2005, JSC were always going to be among the contenders in an increasingly competitive Hokushinetsu League this season, as Nagano Elsa, Matsumoto Yamaga Club and the newly-launched Zweigen Kanazawa all were staking a realistic claim for the title. But as in 2003, it was the students from Niigata who won what turned out to be a thrilling three-way fight for the title with Nagano and Matsumoto, a 1-0 final-day victory over Elsa confirming the championship by just a single point.

Nevertheless, the recent record in the Play-offs of teams representing the Hokushinetsu region is not especially impressive – YKK AP are the last club to win promotion, in 2000 – which suggests that whilst their own league might include a number of similarly-ranked teams, they all find it harder to compete when faced with opposition from elsewhere in the country. This being the case, it is hard to forecast JSC doing anything more than fighting with Luminozo for a runners-up spot behind V Varen in Group B this year.

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