Japanese Non-league Football News

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)
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