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Shikoku League Promotion Play-offs
Some details now of the Prefectural Promotion Play-off to get into the 2007 Shikoku League. The format of the competition is that one team representing each of the four prefectures on Shikoku island meet in a round-robin group played over Sat 09 and Sun 10 Dec, which this year is staged in Tokushima.

Whichever clubs finish first and second go through to the final stage, a two-legged affair scheduled for weekends at the end of January and beginning of February. The top side will be matched up 2006 Shikoku League wooden spooners Sanwa Club, while the team ending up in second place take on Alex SC, who finished next to bottom in the Regional competition.

The participants are as follows:

Ehime: Hisaeda FC (久枝FC)
Kagawa: Minami Club (南クラブ)
Kochi: Kochi Toyopet Sanwa Club (高知トヨペット・昭和クラブ)
Tokushima: Shuyukai (蹴友会)
Chugoku League Promotion / Relegation Play-offs
The first leg ties of the play-offs to decide the last two places in the Chugoku League for 2007 took place on Sunday, with Prefectural Play-off winners NTN Okayama and Mazda SC being matched up with the bottom teams in this year's Chugoku League, Hitachi Manufacturing Kasado and Iwami SC. Hitachi and Mazda both go into next Sunday's second legs with a slight advantage, although there is still everything to play for.

Sun 10 Dec: Hitachi Manufacturing Kasado 3-1 NTN Okayama
Sun 10 Dec: Iwami SC 2-3 Mazda SC
SC Tottori Move To Reach J-League
Fresh from a somewhat disappointing JFL season in 2006, SC Tottori have announced that they intend to set up a separate management company to oversee the team's affairs in preparation for what they hope will be significant development in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the club have already indicated that they aim to achieve associate membership of the J-League, but are now suggesting that their overall target is a J2 place as soon as 2008.
Tohoku League Play-off Modification
The success of TDK Akita in reaching the JFL has had ramifications further down the Regional League pyramid as well. In order to maintain the number of teams in Division 1 of the Tohoku League at eight following the promotion of the 2006 champions, the promotion / relegation play-off between Division 1 and Division 2 will feature not Morioka Zebra but Nippon Steel Kamaishi, who finished bottom of Division 1 and had expected to be automatically relegated. Nippon Steel will take on the loser of October's play-off between the two Division 2 winners, FC Akita Cambiare, in a double-header over this weekend.
Volca Aim For Associate Membership
After a disappointing 2006 campaign, Kyushu League side Volca Kagoshima have announced their intention to press ahead and work towards achieving associate membership of the J-League as soon as 2009. At present, only one club - Rosso Kumamoto - is in possession of this status, which was defined and established by the J-League in March as a required step on the way to joining J2, although both Tochigi SC and SC Tottori have firm plans to make successful applications in the coming months.

Volca, ten years old in their current form but founder members of the Kyushu League in 1973 as Kagoshima Teachers, have long been considered also-rans in their regional competition, which has become probably the toughest in the country in recent years. The club have nevertheless indicated that they believe the way to tackle this and thereby mount a serious challenge to the likes of champions V Varen Nagasaki and other top sides is to harness local support and to identify and sign up better players from Kagoshima itself.
More JFL Moves
Four players have left Sony Sendai's first-team squad, after the disappointment of their 2006 campaign. 30-year-old defender Masato Ishikawa and 28-year-old forwards Yuji Fukuda and Tomotsuna Kobayashi will all concentrate on their day jobs with the company, while former Vegalta Sendai keeper Taiki Maekawa, 27, is seeking to continue playing elsewhere.

Similarly, five players have departed Rosso Kumamoto. They are Akira Takabe, 24, a forward; ex-Vissel Kobe midfielder Kazuhiro Mori, 25; ex-Ventforet Kofu midfielder Hirotaka Uchibayashi, 23; Teru Hamada, a 28-year-old midfielder and yet another midfield player, Naoto Osera, 24.
2006 Season Review - Part 2
Continuing here JNFN's look back at the 2006 Japanese non-league season, here concentrating on the Regional Leagues and on team of the moment, Tohoku League champions and JFL new boys for next season, TDK Akita.

TDK have been more or less consistently the top side in the Tohoku League for almost ten years - ever since Sony Sendai were promoted to the JFL in 1997, in fact. In recent seasons they have shrugged off the challenge of other teams like Grulla Morioka, NEC Tokin and Fukushima's FC Primeiro, while fourteen wins in fourteen league matches this year gave TDK their fifth consecutive title in some style.

But being top dogs in one of the regions is not the same thing as being competitve in a national league, as Chugoku's Mitsubishi Mizushima and Honda Lock from Kyushu have discovered since they gained their places in the JFL at the end of 2004 (in two seasons, the pair have together won just seventeen of 128 league fixtures). TDK do though have some experience of how difficult that step up can be, having themselves appeared in Division 2 of the old Japan Soccer League for a couple of years in the mid-80s: they were promptly relegated back to the Tohoku League again, their second season delivering a record of Played 20, Drew 1, Lost 19.

Twenty years on, in seeking to avoid becoming one of the JFL company side also-rans like Mizushima and Lock, coach Tsutomu Komatsu will certainly need company investment to boost his squad with more experience than it possesses at the moment, because aside from former Ventforet Kofu duo Hirotoshi Yokoyama and Toshiki Chino, the bulk of TDK's playing staff are ex-university students. Defender Masahiro Kato, for example - scorer of the decisive penalty in the shoot-out following the last Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off game against Fagiano Okayama - has spent most of his career turning out for Hosei University and for Tokyo Prefectural League team FC Shinjuku.

Time will tell if Komatsu is rewarded by his employers with a bigger budget to bring better players north to Akita, although the sentimental view would be that those members of the team who won promotion for the club should now be given the opportunity to play regularly in the JFL. For TDK's promotion was a remarkable achievement, especially now in the light of the marked progression in Regional League football away from a situation where corporate teams were in charge.

Ten years ago, for instance, all but one of the nine Regional Leagues were won by company clubs, such as Mazda SC, Hokkaido Electric Power - now known as Norbritz Hokkaido - and NTT Kansai. The exception was in Hokushinetsu, from where Albireo Niigata were headed for the J-League with just a tiny modification to their name - but even they only triumphed on goal difference from the Hokuriku Electric Power side, Alo's Hokuriku.

But while in the JFL, 2006 has been a season in which company clubs re-asserted their authority at the expense of ambitious community-based outfits, at regional level the picture is reversed. Aside from Norbritz, TDK in Tohoku were actually the only corporate side to win their local title and in other parts of the country, teams who have moved out of the company sector - or were never in it - now hold sway. And pretty much all of these teams are recently-formed or reconfigured and on paper at least are set up to win a place in the JFL and beyond.

The Shikoku League this year, for instance, was a two-horse race between Kamatamare Sanuki and Nangoku Kochi: both seeking to follow their neighbours Ehime FC and Tokushima Vortis into the J-League, however distant they may currently be from achieving their aim. Similarly, the competition in Tokai has been dominated by FC Gifu and Shizuoka FC, while Matsumoto Yamaga Club and Nagano Elsa were both in contention at the top of the Hokushinetsu League until Japan Soccer College nicked in and stole the title on the last day of the season.

Of the new teams to emerge in the fourth tier over the past twelve months, Gifu have been without doubt the most successful, their attendance of over 12,000 for a Tokai League match against Yazaki Valente demonstrating what can be achieved in terms of attracting local support, even further down the pyramid than the JFL. If they are able to maintain the impressive progress made over in 2006, Fagiano Okayama and FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu from Kansai may follow Gifu and Kyushu's V Varen Nagasaki to become realistic challengers for promotion from their respective Regional Leagues.

FC Mi-o's local rivals Banditonce Kobe, however, undoubtedly were a disappointment in the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off - and indeed, it is notable that the leagues covering Japan's two main areas of population, Kansai and Kanto, are at something of a low ebb in terms of quality at present. Crowds in both competitions are generally low and in Kanto, traditional big guns Luminozo Sayama seem to have lost their way, leaving a gap that other established sides like Toho Titanium and military outfit MSDF Atsugi Marcus seem unable to fill.

So at the end of 2006, where does the game in Japan's Regional Leagues stand? Any consideration of this question has by necessity to be framed in terms of the expansion of the J-League itself, because now more than ever, clubs playing regional football right across the country are gearing up over the next few years to meet the criteria laid down in order to gain a place in J2 - or even, of course, in a potential J3. There's no doubt that Rosso Kumamoto's inability to stay the pace in the closing weeks of the JFL season has put the dampeners upon this process for another season; but that does mean that players, coaches and administrators from Renofa Yamaguchi in the south to Tokachi Fairsky in the north have just a little more time to prepare for the future.
2006 Season Review - Part 1
And so with the additional Promotion / Relegation Play-off between Honda Lock and FC Gifu still to be take place, Tohoku League champions TDK Akita have in winning the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off tournament confirmed their place at the highest level of semi-pro football in Japan for the 2007 season. As 2006 draws to an end, however, what is the current state of the non-league game in Japan? How significant is TDK's success as a Regional League club and that of Honda FC and other corporate sides in the JFL itself? JNFN here begins a two-part look at the third and fourth tiers of the country's club football.

The first thing to be observed about the season at JFL level, at any rate, is that the company teams have reverted to their position of dominance. Hamamatsu's Honda FC recovered from a lowest-ever fifth place finish in 2005 deservedly to take the title, the goal-machine that is Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo and their corporate neighbours / rivals Sagawa Kyubin Osaka pulling off a major shock by providing the closest challenge to Honda's supremacy.

Over in Toyama, YKK AP maintain a solid squad and, despite letting slip the impressive lead developed during a blistering first half of the year, can be regarded as consistently one of the strongest sides outside the J-League. Further down the table, meanwhile, Tokyo-based outfit Yokogawa Musashino enjoyed their best-ever JFL campaign to secure a comfortable sixth-place.

Success stories all. But the flipside of this, of course, is that within the third tier of Japan's footballing pyramid, the supposedly ambitious community-based clubs - almost all of whom have J-League pretentions - experienced what amounts to a pretty dreadful season. Newcomers Rosso Kumamoto and FC Ryukyu both under-achieved, the latter wildly so, as not even the legendary figure of coach Jorge Yonashiro could raise the Okinawans much above the relegation zone.

Elsewhere, neither Tochigi SC or SC Tottori made their hoped-for year-on-year advances and in Gunma prefecture, Arte Takasaki's campaign got off to such a poor start that newly-appointed coach Kim Guan Ho was sacked after just half a dozen games. The club then more or less imploded later in the summer, with the departure of the bulk of their first-team squad and of Kim's replacement, Kazuyoshi Hamaguchi. While Arte's third boss of 2006, Brazilian player-coach Alemao, consequently deserves some credit for steering the team away from stormy waters and concluding the season with a respectable enough mid-table finish, Gunma's dreams of being represented by a second J-League team seem now to be as far from reality as they have ever been.

A point which leads us to consider a reminder of why all of this matters. The performance of these sides is significant because the J-League has as a general long-term policy the idea of expanding the the coverage of professional football as widely as possible across the country - increasing the number of teams to the point where, to use one obvious measurement, there is at least one J-League club in each prefecture.

Given that the sole way to achieve J-League status currently is via associate membership, a crucial separation of legal ties from any parent company (which is one reason why none of the corporate teams in their current form can be considered candidates for J2) and promotion from the JFL, the aforementioned community-based sides are therefore the nearest that Japan has to a new wave of would-be professional football teams. Their failure to come to terms in 2006 with either the on-the-field challenge of Honda FC, Sagawa Kyubin et al or the opportunities presented to them by a J-League actively seeking stable new members has to be viewed as a significant disappointment and, moreover, as an apparent inability to make progress, when the targets - sporting, legal and financial - are all clear enough.

For anyone who has been following the Japanese club game over the last few years will be aware that there are recent precedents from which provincial sides like Rosso, Ryukyu, Tochigi, Tottori and Arte would hope to learn. Following their JFL championship win a year ago, Ehime FC have performed respectably in J2 this season and although the two teams promoted into the J-League twelve months earlier - Thespa Kusatsu and Tokushima Vortis - have found it harder to acclimatise to the rigours of the pro game, their presence there nevertheless demonstrates the willingness of the J-League to follow through on its plans for development.

In the light of a picture of the business end of the JFL being one of corporate strength and an apparent gap between Ehime and the clubs that aspire to follow them up into J2, the second part of this article will seek to examine the situation in the nine Regional Leagues - and how TDK Akita might be expected to fare following their own shock success.
JFL Annual Awards
The JFL have been holding their annual awards ceremony and, not surprisingly, representatives of runaway 2006 title winners Honda FC have come away from the event really rather gong-laden. Striker Junya Nitta picked up the Player of the Year title following his stunning form in the second half of the season, defensive midfielder Ryosuke Hirokiri was Rookie of the Year and the coach's award finds a deserved home in the mantelpiece of outgoing Honda boss Hideo Yoshizawa, who did a superb job in turning round the disappointment of a worst-ever fifth-place finish in 2005.

06 Dec 06 - The 2006 JFL Best XI

The 2006 JFL Best XI. Ten of them, anyway

Full details of the winners and the prestigious Best XI Team of the Year are as follows:

Player of the Year: Junya Nitta (Honda FC)
Rookie of the Year: Ryosuke Horikiri (Honda FC)
Coach of the Year: Hideo Yoshizawa (Honda FC)
"Fighting Spirit" of the Year: Hiroyuki Shimizu (SC Tottori)

Best XI

GK Tsuyoshi Kawaguchi (Honda FC)
DF Yuki Hamano (YKK AP)
DF Ryosuke Horikiri (Honda FC)
DF Masayuki Ishii (Honda FC)
DF Takuya Tomiyama (Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo)
MF Nobumitsu Yamane (Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo)
MF Shogo Shimada (Sagawa Kyubin Osaka)
MF Masahiko Kumagai (Rosso Kumamoto)
FW Junya Nitta (Honda FC)
FW Tetsuya Okubo (Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo)
FW Sho Gokyu (Sagawa Kyubin Osaka)
JFL Moves
Coaches Hideo Yoshizawa of Honda FC and FC Ryukyu's Jorge Yonashiro haveboth left their posts following the end of the 2006 season... four squad members at Sagawa Kyubin Osaka have retired, namely defender Yuji Yoshizaki, midfielder Yonshigi Son, strikers Ryuji Nakano and Jun Narita... SC Tottori have made the loan move of young defender Tsubasa Watabe permanent from J2 side Shonan Bellmare... Arata Izumi, a striker, has moved from Mitsubishi Mizushima to Indian side Kingfisher East Bengal Club
JFL - Round 34
JFL 2006 title winners Honda FC confirmed their championship triumph by defeating company rivals Honda Lock 2-1 in the final day of the league season on Sunday - but they needed to come from behind to do so. Lock, who finished bottom of the table and will need to play off against Tokai League side FC Gifu to retain their place in the JFL for next year, took a sensational lead through Kazumasa Asami just before the interval, only for Junya Nitta to level things up mid-way through the second period. Masayuki Ishii netted the winner for Honda in the dying moments.

Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo and Sagawa Kyubin Osaka have now ended their JFL lives as separate clubs before amalgamation during the forthcoming close season. It has nevertheless been a superb campaign for the corporate sides, who finished second and third. Tokyo rounded off the year with a somewhat disappointing home draw against FC Kariya, while Osaka overcame Rosso Kumamoto thanks to Ryoji Nakano's twentieth-minute effort.

That loss for Rosso meant that they ended up in a disappointing fifth position, overtaken on the final day by YKK AP, for whom Daisuke Asahi scored the only goal of the game in injury time against JEF Club. The other teams in the top group were YKK's local rivals Alo's Hokuriku - who drew 0-0 with FC Ryukyu - Yokogawa Musashino and Tochigi SC, victors over lowly Sagawa Printing and Mitsubishi Mizushima respectively.

Indeed, Kenta Nagai's 86th-minute goal for Tochigi was partly responsible for Mitsubishi slipping back down into the bottom two, given that Ryutsu Keizai University were able to notch up a 2-0 win at a Sony Sendai side who have endured a horrendous second half of the season. Finishing the year locked in mid-table alongside Sony are Arte Takasaki and SC Tottori, who rounded off their seasons with a 2-2 draw.

03 Dec 06 - Celebration time for JFL champions Honda FC

Celebration time for JFL champions Honda FC

Sun 03 Dec: Alo's Hokuriku 0-0 FC Ryukyu
Sun 03 Dec: Arte Takasaki 2-2 SC Tottori
Sun 03 Dec: Honda FC 2-1 Honda Lock
Sun 03 Dec: Sagawa Kyubin Osaka 1-0 Rosso Kumamoto
Sun 03 Dec: Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo 1-1 FC Kariya
Sun 03 Dec: Sony Sendai 0-2 Ryutsu Keizai University
Sun 03 Dec: Tochigi SC 1-0 Mitsubishi Mizushima
Sun 03 Dec: YKK AP 1-0 JEF Club
Sun 03 Dec: Yokogawa Musashino 2-0 Sagawa Printing

1 Honda FC 83 (+41)
2 Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo 75 (+61)
3 Sagawa Kyubin Osaka 72 (+39)
4 YKK AP 67 (+34)
5 Rosso Kumamoto 66 (+25)
6 Yokogawa Musashino 60 (+20)
7 Tochigi SC 60 (+15)
8 Alo's Hokuriku 57 (+23)
9 Sony Sendai 37 (-17)
10 Arte Takasaki 37 (-26)
11 SC Tottori 36 (-1)
12 JEF Club 35 (-16)
13 FC Kariya 32 (-17)
14 FC Ryukyu 29 (-28)
15 Sagawa Printing 29 (-29)
16 Ryutsu Keizai University 28 (-35)
17 Mitsubishi Mizushima 27 (-42)
18 Honda Lock 22 (-47)

03 Dec 06 - Tochigi SC’s Kenta Nagai in buoyant mood

Tochigi SC’s Kenta Nagai in buoyant mood
Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Results
And now the last pairing of matches on Sunday...

Final Stage

Fagiano Okayama 1-1 TDK Akita (TDK won 4-3 on pens)
V Varen Nagasaki 1-2 FC Gifu

A second penalty shoot-out win in the Final Stage for TDK Akita means that the surprise outfit from Tohoku finished top of the group and eliminated opponents Fagiano Okayama in Oita on Sunday. TDK took a first-half lead to put themselves in the driving seat against the Chugoku Leaguers and, despite conceding an equaliser after the break, held their nerve to take two points from the subsequent spot-kick tornament. In the second game later on, an injury-time goal from striker Tomoki Ikemoto gave FC Gifu a narrow win over a very disappointing V Varen Nagasaki to confirm the fancied Tokai League side's second-place finish at the expense of Fagiano.

03 Dec 06 - Gifu line up before their crunch match with Nagasaki

Gifu line up before their crunch match with Nagasaki

1. TDK Akita 7 (+1)
2. FC Gifu 6 (+2)
3. Fagiano Okayama 4 (-)
4. V Varen Nagasaki 1 (-3)

All of which means that TDK Akita are promoted directly to the JFL, while FC Gifu take on JFL bottom-place side Honda Lock in a promotion / relegation play-off over two legs on 17 and 24 December. Fagiano and V Varen simply revert to their own Regional Leagues for 2007, when the Tohoku, Tokai and Chugoku competitions will receive an allocation of two places in the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off.
Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Results
Results now from Saturday's matches...

Final Stage

FC Gifu 2-0 Fagiano Okayama
TDK Akita 0-0 V Varen Nagasaki (TDK won 7-6 on pens)

Rank outsiders TDK Akita took a huge stride towards promotion to the JFL on Saturday, beating V Varen Nagasaki 7-6 on penalties after a 0-0 draw in Oita, to add two more points to the three from their Friday victory over FC Gifu. Gifu themselves are back in contention, as they beat Fagiano Okayama 2-0 to go second on goal difference.

But it's still all to play for, as even the northerners of TDK can be squeezed out of a top two finish if the results on Sunday go against them: a defeat at the hands of Fagiano combined with Gifu beating V Varen will see TDK slip back to third. Try not to bite those nails too much...

02 Dec 06 - V Varen Nagasaki fans watch their side in action against TDK

V Varen Nagasaki fans watch their side take on TDK

1. TDK Akita 5 (+1)
2. FC Gifu 3 (+1)
3. Fagiano Okayama 3 (-)
4. V Varen Nagasaki 1 (-2)

02 Dec 06 - FC Gifu battle their way back into contention against Fagiano Okayama

FC Gifu battle their way back into contention against Fagiano Okayama
Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Results
Results from the first matches of the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Final Stage, played on Friday 01 December...

Final Stage

Fagiano Okayama 3-1 V Varen Nagasaki
FC Gifu 0-1 TDK Akita

Two sensational scorelines, with the copper-bottomed, dead cert favourites V Varen Nagasaki and FC Gifu both going down to defeats at the hands of their less-fancied rivals. The scene was set by the morning kick-off between V Varen and Chugoku's Fagiano Okayama, who went ahead mid-way through the first half via midfielder Yusaka Asahina.

Nagasaki were on level terms shortly afterwards but Fagiano took control in the second half, the scoring finally completed in 78th minute by Jefferson's sixth goal in three play-off games. TDK Akita meanwhile took the lead with a bullet of a long-range shot just before half-time in the lunchtime game and despite being under pressure for much of the rest of the match, their defence held out against a Gifu side that had scored twelve goals in the three First Round matches.

01 Dec 06 - TDK on the defensive against FC Gifu

TDK on the defensive against FC Gifu

01 Dec 06 - It’s those crazy Fagiano Okayama supporters again

It’s those crazy Fagiano Okayama supporters again
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