Japanese Non-league Football News

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.
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