Japanese Non-league Football News

JFL Team Profile - YKK AP

On paper one of the outsiders of the JFL, Toyama-based company outfit YKK AP have nevertheless proved themselves to be a very competitive side over the last few seasons. A solid upper mid-table team since their arrival in the division in 2001, a remarkable thirteen wins in the last seventeen matches of 2005 nevertheless saw them rise to a shock second place finish, ahead of more fancied teams like Honda FC and Tochigi SC.

YKK began 2006 where they had left off, storming to the top of the league on the back of seven straight victories including a 7-1 drubbing of relegation-bound Honda Lock. A mid-season slump meant that they were unable to keep up with the blistering form of Honda and Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo, but they bounced back to secure fourth position and maintain a role as consistently one of the stronger sides outside of the professional ranks.

Despite this comparative success, the club's parent company have never shown any indication that they wish to take the necessary steps to support a bid for J-League membership. Tentative discussions instigated in 2005 by the Toyama FA into the possibility of creating a “Toyama United” J-League candidate via a merger between YKK AP and local rivals Alo’s Hokuriku came to nothing at the time and there have been no subsequent signs of any more developments in that area.

Under these circumstances, it's hard to see where YKK AP can go in the coming seasons, but their past is longer than that of most clubs at this level. They date back to 1962, formed in Kurobe City by a subsidiary of the YKK corporation (the AP stands for Architectural Products - they make things like doors and window frames), and registered with the prefectural FA in 1969. Three years later, YKK won the Toyama Prefectural League and then in 1975 the club joined the inaugural Hokushinetsu League.

In 1988, the company rather proudly imported two Brazilian players to boost the team and from the early 90s onwards, YKK AP strengthened further their position as one of the forces in the Hokushinetsu region - along with Alo's Hokuriku and the then Albireo Niigata - winning the league in total on eleven occasions and only once finishing outside the top four. But this was scarcely one of Japan’s footballing hotbeds and the local champions always struggled in competition on the national stage, causing a bottleneck as the top three dominated each season in Hokushinetsu but could not make the step up into the JFL.

Matters began to improve in the mid-90s, however, and by the end of the decade both Albirex Niigata and Alo’s had won promotion. YKK finally followed in their footsteps in 2000, emerging undefeated from a season of matches against the likes of Fukui Teachers and Nissei Resin to finish second in the Final Stage of the Regional league Championship Winners’ Play-off tournament.

A 7-0 win over Yokogawa FC was the highlight of a promising 2001 campaign, with new star striker Mitsuru Hasegawa making an immediate impact. Indeed, Hasegawa has remained a key figure in YKK's squad and in 2005 was named a member of the prestigious JFL's Best Eleven end-of-season team, alongside team-mates midfielder Takeshi Ushibana and defender Yuki Hamano, the latter of whom even managed to retain the honour for the following season. But more broadly, one must wonder what the longer-term future holds for YKK AP as the development of the professional game continues around them.

JFL Team Profile - SC Tottori

Gainare Tottori are one of several JFL outfits who have announced a specific timetable by which they intend to achieve J-League membership, and there are several factors that count in their favour as good candidates for a place in the J-League. The first is that they have as a home stadium the excellent 16,000 capacity Tottori Bird facility, which - despite requiring some building work in order to bring it up to the standard required to host regular J2 matches - has over the years staged a good few games in both the J-League and Emperor's Cup.

Secondly, Tottori are well-established as a club independent of any parent company or individual main sponsor, a key criterion for entry into the J-League. In fact, having been formed under the name Tottori Teachers Soccer Group, the club's rise to their current status of knocking on the door of the country's professional elite amounts to a major success story of grassroots football: a fact that is rightly a source of local pride.

Their first experience of league competition was a positive one. After being founded in 1983, Tottori Teachers Soccer Group took the Tottori Prefectural League Division 2 title and so gained promotion at the first attempt. In both 1985 and 1986, they proceeded to win Division 1 and then moved up to the Chugoku League.

As it turned out, this promotion was to herald a long period of yo-yoing between the two levels, for despite five times winning the Prefectural League, it took SC Tottori – a name adopted in 1989 – until 1998 to make it to the Regional League and stay there. In 2000, though, the club made a huge step forward, coming from nowhere first to triumph in the Chugoku League and then to fight their way through to the expanded JFL (in fact, the club applied for and were awarded JFL membership, despite having finished last in the Final Stage of the Play-off competition).

However, such sudden progression caused considerable financial headaches for team management and, although attempts were made to mobilise the community in support of their local club, on the pitch results were poor - Tottori finished last in their inaugural season, managing just eight points out of ninety. Although modest improvements have since been made, 2004 and 2005 saw the shift towards the expansion of the pro game in Japan gather pace and SC Tottori found it hard to keep in touch.

While Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, Thespa Kusatsu and Ehime FC – provincial teams all - were getting promoted to J2, the club from the Japan Sea coast slipped back towards the bottom of the table. The need to make across-the-board improvements was obvious, if SC Tottori were to avoid simply being left behind.

In the run-up to the 2006 campaign, therefore, announcements were made of a change of approach and a plan to aim for J2 membership in 2008. This would entail the development of a corporate body that has the financial strength to support activities associated with J-League membership: sponsorship raised for Tottori in 2005 about 13 million yen, whilst 300 million was generally thought to be a suitable equivalent figure for a J2 team.

But their results in 2006 showed almost no corresponding improvements and the second half of the year in particular was a disaster in terms of attempts by coach Kei Kinoshita to take the team forward. He has since been replaced for 2007 by the experienced Yuji Mizuguchi, as Tottori seek to rise to the difficult challenge of competing with Rosso Kumamoto, Tochigi SC and the other ambitious JFL clubs. As well as adopting the name Gainare Tottori, prior to the 2007 season they were awarded associate membership status of the J-League, meaning that - assuming that they were able to satisfy all the other relevant criteria - a top four finish would more or less guarantee promotion.
JFL Team Profile - Tochigi SC

2006 was without much doubt the single most important season that Tochigi SC have faced in their history. Towards the end of the previous year, the club announced that they had made an approach to the prefectural government to request council and local business support in making a final push for J2 membership, and subsequently established a public company to oversee necessary developments that will enable them to achieve their target of a place in J2.

In fact, in many ways Tochigi SC can be seen as a test case for similarly-ranked clubs seeking to become fully paid-up members of the pro game. Their infrastructure and support are good – the average home crowd in 2006 stood at more than 2000 - and they have an excellent stadium in the beautiful Tochigi Green. There are no other sides in their home prefecture even close to their level, the nearest being Hitachi Tochigi Uva in the Kanto League, which means that all attention locally can be focused on just the one organisation.

But while there are reasons to believe that the club might have a successful future, their history now stretches back more than fifty years. It was in 1953 that they were formed as Tochigi Teachers Soccer Group, who in 1982 began a sporadic participation in the Kanto League that lasted over a period of a decade.

Back in the Prefectural League in 1994, the team changed their name to Tochigi SC - but in 1999, when the JFL was reorganised, they happened to take a first-ever Kanto League title in nail-biting fashion, on goal difference from local top dogs Luminozo Sayama. Even though this was Tochigi's first season back in the Regional League, they nevertheless then went on to claim a pair of 1-0 wins over NTT Kyushu and Sagawa Kyubin Osaka in the First Round of the Play-offs, subsequently gaining promotion to the JFL alongside Alo’s Hokuriku from the Hokushinetsu region.

After taking some time to find their feet in the third tier, prior to 2006 the team had been gradually improving their results year-on-year. By 2003, the club were established in mid-table above the habitual strugglers - and two seasons later they even led the division in mid-term, when striker Manabu Wakabayashi was the league's top scorer prior to being poached by goal-shy J1 outfit Omiya Ardija.

Tochigi eventually finished fourth, but to the disappointment of their developing fanbase rather lost their way in an inconsistent 2006, thanks partly to a lack of goals caused by the failure to replace Wakabayashi. Defeats to lower-ranking teams like Sagawa Printing and Arte Takasaki in particular were scarcely results about which an ambitious, go-ahead club would be proud and they ended more than twenty points off the pace of champions Honda FC. Failure, too, to be granted the requisite J-League associate membership has meant that the schedule for promotion has slipped a year - although this status was achieved prior to the 2007 season - but Tochigi are nevertheless set up for a major battle with the other sides throughout Japan who are hoping to follow Tokushima Vortis, Thespa Kusatsu and Ehime FC up from the JFL.

So, can Tochigi SC bring professional football to the one remaining Kanto-area prefecture to be without a J-League team? Although Rosso Kumamoto must be considered the frontrunners and there is an expanding field of alternative candidates, Tochigi may not be all that far behind.
JFL Team Profile - TDK SC

Prior to achieving a shock promotion to the JFL for 2007, in their own Regional League the home taper's favourites had overcome the challenge to their supremacy from Grulla Morioka and stood head and shoulders above all the other teams in Tohoku. An 8-1 away win at Grulla’s neighbours Morioka Zebra was just one stop along the way to winning all fourteen league matches in 2006, as TDK claimed their fifth title in a row and their eleventh overall.

Come the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-offs, in the First Round they edged past Nippon Steel Oita from Kyushu and Kanto’s YSCC, before causing a sensation in the Final Stage with a victory over favourites FC Gifu. Penalty shoot-out defeats of Fagiano Okayama and V Varen Nagasaki completed a remarkable rise for TDK.

For this is a very well-established club, having been set up in Nikaho in 1965 and first making a splash outside Akita prefecture when they won three consecutive Tohoku League crowns from 1982. An expansion of Division 2 of the JSL meant that four sides in the 1984 Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off were able to gain promotion and TDK took advantage of this lowering of the bar to move up to a nationwide league for the first time.

21 Feb 07 - TDK badge

Once there, however, for the two seasons they managed to cling on they were totally outclassed by experienced teams like Toshiba and Sumitomo Metals. In the regular league programme, TDK failed to win a match in either year, but after relegation back to the region they remained what amounted to a big fish in a small pond: the club went through something of a slump in the mid-90s, but otherwise remained a dominant force against whom other teams in the region needed to compete in order to make any headway through the leagues.

The most dramatic Tohoku League season that TDK experienced was in 2005, when they went head-to-head in a fight for the championship with well-financed newcomers Grulla Morioka. The two were neck and neck throughout the year, but surely no-one can have foreseen that they would finish absolutely dead level and therefore had to share the title.

But until finally gaining promotion in 2006, TDK’s appearances in the Regional League Play-offs over the past few seasons seemed to indicate that the club occupied a role as the nearly-men of Regional league football, having on a consistent basis narrowly failed to qualify for the Final Stage. Following their joint title win with Grulla in 2005, for example, they lost out on goal difference to JEF United Amateurs, and in previous years were eliminated by the likes of Ryutsu Keizai University, Thespa Kusatsu and Shizuoka FC.

Twenty years after they last appeared on a national stage, TDK will first and foremost aim to avoid becoming one of the JFL company side also-rans. Coach Tsutomu Komatsu must face the challenge of supporting his players in stepping up from playing fourteen local league games a year to the rigours of a 34-match season, in which away fixtures can mean flights of hundreds of miles.

Furthermore, TDK won the Tohoku League with a squad made up almost entirely of ex-university students and there is very little experience in the squad of higher-level football. Defender Masahiro Kato, for example - scorer of the decisive penalty in the shoot-out following the last 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.
JFL Team Profile - Sony Sendai

Sony Sendai were founded in 1968 and for the first 25 years of their history remained a small company club that represented only the Sendai branch of Sony Corp. Playing in the well-established Sendai Industrial League between 1968 and 1980 before being promoted to the Miyagi Prefectural League in 1993, they received little attention from central office.

With the commencement that same year of the J-League, however, a five-year plan was introduced by club management, who aimed to strengthen the team within the environment of the newly set up JFL. In 1994, Sony Sendai won the Prefectural League title to gain promotion to the Tohoku League and in three years had charged to three consecutive Regional championships - the last of them by a margin of nineteen points from Morioka Zebra and TDK, not bad for a fourteen-game season.

By this time, it was clear enough that the club had indeed improved enough to take a place in the top tier of the semi-pro game in Japan. This fact was underlined by their performance in the 1997 Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off competition by which they clinched promotion, thrashing both Sapporo University OB and Shikoku’s Kagawa Shiun FC before triumphing in the Final Stage group (a J-League-headed Albirex Niigata moved up with them).

Having participated in the JFL since 1998, Sony Sendai have achieved somewhat inconsistent results, but essentially are – or were; see below - established as a top-half team, comparable with the pre-merger Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo. 2005 in particular saw Sony get off to a flying start and win the first half dozen matches of the year, but they were quickly overhauled by Honda FC and others, slipping down the ranking as the season went on to end up seventh.

Nevertheless, the bizarre nature of the club’s 2006 campaign can be held up as indicative of the genuine chasm in quality that has always existed in the JFL between the main contenders and the low-ranking, just-about-hangers-on. Having found a comfortable niche in mid-table at the halfway point in the season, Sony found that the top eight sides simply accelerated out of sight. At the same time, their own form collapsed and they managed only five points from the last fourteen matches of the season – but even despite such an appalling run, they maintained their ninth place and were not overtaken by any of the clubs lower down the table.

Not that this augurs terribly well for the team’s status in the rapidly-evolving world of the JFL. Such a profound change in Sony Sendai’s fortunes (their results over a period of some months were considerably worse than that of any of their rivals) means that they will potentially commence the 2007 season regarded as one of the league’s weakest clubs, picking up the scraps from fixtures with Mitsubishi Mizushima and Ryutsu Keizai University.

Moreover, as with Honda FC or YKK AP, one also has to wonder what the longer-term future holds for Sony. The team generally attract a respectable 500 or 600 fans to home matches in the JFL, but even so the parent company have long indicated their intention that the club stay as an amateur, company side. This is without any doubt a realistic approach to adopt, since they share their home city with the extremely popular Vegalta Sendai - but whether Sony will continue as a third tier outfit while the move to populate an expanding J-League gathers force remains to be seen.
JFL Team Profile - Sagawa Printing

Although they have some historical corporate ties to the Sagawa Kyubin delivery company, Sagawa Printing are a completely separate organisation from the Sagawa Kyubin clubs that have lined up alongside them in the JFL. At the moment, the club are still too small to start considering J-League entry - average crowds are generally around the 350 mark, towards the lower end of the JFL scale - but there are signs that they may soon take the necessary steps to establish an independent organisational structure, thus making themselves eligible for promotion in the future.

Dating back to 1986 and based in Muko City in Kyoto, Sagawa Printing nevertheless started out in the depths of the Kyoto Prefectural League Division 4, moving up to win Division 2 in 1998 and so gain promotion to Division 1. The club then made a serious effort to improve and were immediately rewarded with a further step up into the Kansai League, which in 2000 was still a single-division competition.

Ironically, Sagawa Kyubin FC (i.e. Sagawa Kyubin Osaka) were the strongest team at that time - but once they had moved up to the JFL at the end of 2001, Printing wasted no time in following suit. 2002 saw them go through the season undefeated - even running in an 8-1 win against NTT Western Japan Kyoto - and once through into the First Round of the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off tournament, they eased past Nagano Elsa and Kanto’s Ome FC.

Kansai rivals Ain Food actually beat Printing in the penalty shoot-out between the two in the Second Round, but wins over Shizuoka FC and Volca Kagoshima were still enough to ensure that the club made it through to the final Relegation / Promotion Play-off – the first time such a mechanism had been used since the JFL’s 1999 re-structuring. And so the longest season in Sagawa Printing’s history came down to two matches against Shizuoka Sangyo University, who had had the misfortune to finish fifteenth out of eighteen in the JFL. Goalless draws in both legs stretched out the agony even longer, but the students were defeated in the penalty competition and Printing were up.

For the next few seasons, they made gradual improvements to move away from the lower reaches of the division and in 2005 finished eleventh out of sixteen, their highest final position to date. Prior to the 2006 campaign, club management took the bold step of appointing as coach the highly-regarded Hideki Matsunaga, who emerged onto the Japanese coaching scene most notably via his work at Ventforet Kofu - a side he transformed from no-hopers anchored to the foot of J2 into a solid mid-table outfit, paving the way for their incredible run to promotion at the end of 2005.

Unlikely it may have been that Matsunaga could turn Printing into title challengers, but expectations of a top-half finish in 2006 were perhaps not unrealistic. It was therefore a huge disappointment to wait until round 10 for the new coach to win his first match and the team were consequently stuck to the bottom of the table for some weeks.

Further victories over the likes of rivals Honda Lock and Ryutsu Keizai University eased the pressure on Matsunaga, but he nevertheless stepped down at the end of August. Replacement Katsuki Tanaka was barely more successful and if management had hoped that 2006 would see Sagawa Printing take a major step forward towards becoming significant players in the JFL, they will have felt extremely let down by the results of their investment.
JFL Team Profile - Sagawa Kyubin SC

Sagawa Kyubin is Japan's biggest parcel delivery service and, as you might expect, a significant percentage of their package-handling workers and delivery drivers tend to be young, physically active males. It is therefore no surprise that Sagawa Kyubin have a long history of fielding teams in a variety of different sports, usually made up of men working out of the same delivery centre.

Within the Japanese non-league football pyramid there are a good many Sagawa Kyubin teams across the country, but the flagship side are Sagawa Kyubin SC. Based in Moriyama in Shiga prefecture, the club were formed in early 2007 as the result of a merger between the Sagawa Kyubin Osaka and Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo teams that had in recent seasons played in the JFL.

The Osaka team’s history dated back to 1965, when their predecessor club the Hokusetsu Football Group was formed. Over the next 25 years or so, Hokusetsu participated in the Osaka Prefectural League, but in 1989 were taken in as the club of the Osaka College of Physical Education.

Despite being a students' team, they continued outside the college football set-up and in 1997 changed their status once again to compete in the Kansai League under the auspices of Sagawa Kyubin Osaka. Indeed, they became a powerful concern in the Regional competition - in the five years from 1997, Sagawa Osaka were Kansai champions three times and in 2001 were promoted to the JFL.

Until the merger with Tokyo, the club were mostly solid mid-table performers rather than spectacular members of Japan's non-league elite, their most successful campaign coming in 2006 when they finished third. Just above them, however - in a remarkable season for the company - were Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo, a side whose history had two distinct elements.

In 1991, footballers from several of the company's teams around the capital got together to form a more competitive club, drawing employees from all over the greater Tokyo area. Elsewhere, a couple of years later some ex-players from the ANA Yokohama and Yokohama Flugels clubs began a team called Tokyo Fulie and in the late 90s, Fulie and Sagawa Kyubin merged under the cumbersome moniker of, yes, Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo Fulie SC.

Sagawa Tokyo had until then played in the lower reaches of the Tokyo Prefectural League, but at the end of 1999 the combined side gained promotion to the Kanto League. This they duly won at the first attempt and in 2001, having got through the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off, the more manageably-named Sagawa Kyubin SC lined up in the JFL. That same year, they also notched up arguably the greatest upset in the history of the Emperor's Cup, when they thrashed J1 giants Nagoya Grampus 8 4-0.

With the Osaka club reaching the JFL a year later, Sagawa Kyubin SC reverted to using the Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo name and continued to compete with the likes of Honda FC in the upper reaches of the division. 2006 was a particularly good year, as top scorer Tetsuya Okubo’s contribution in particular enabled the club to win seventeen of the last twenty matches.

Okubo moved on to Kashiwa Reysol in the close season, but fifteen of his former team-mates joined sixteen ex-Osaka colleagues to form the Sagawa Kyubin SC squad. Masahi Nakaguchi - previously in charge at Osaka - will aim to continue the positive results achieved in 2006, although it is unclear where this may eventually lead. The parent company have a history of transferring the management of their football clubs over to grassroots NPOs and it is not outside the realms of possibility that, over time, Sagawa Kyubin SC will evolve into a J-League franchise in Shiga.
JFL Team Profile - Ryutsu Keizai University

As a general rule, clubs within the JFL fall into two categories as far as their organisation and financing is concerned. On the one hand, there are the corporate sides like Honda FC, Mitsubishi Mizushima and Sagawa Kyubin SC, who receive their backing mostly or entirely from a parent company, from which they may or may not be legally independent.

Alternatively, there are what one might describe as community-based sides such as Tochigi SC, SC Tottori and FC Kariya, whose development is in many ways reliant upon their attracting support from among the population of a specific area, and upon forming good relationships with local government and a range of local business sponsors.

Built into the Play-off mechanism by which clubs gain promotion into the JFL, however, is the possibility for a third type of team to find a place amongst the elite of the Japanese semi-pro game. On occasions – although this in fact didn’t happen in 2006 – the All-Nippon University FA nominate a candidate from amongst their membership to participate in the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off competition, alongside eleven or twelve teams from the nine Regional Leagues.

The recent progress to the JFL of Ibaraki-based Ryutsu Keizai University – RKU for short, or the University of Transportation Economics, to give them their English name – has thus taken place not through the regular Prefectural and Regional Leagues, but instead via the parallel structure of college football. The two routes are mostly separate up to the point of the play-offs and indeed, aside from the Albirex Niigata-affiliated Japan Soccer College, there are only a handful of examples of sides in the Regional Leagues representing educational institutions.

RKU entered the Ibaraki Prefecture University League after having been formed in 1965 – but it wasn’t until the late 90s that things really started to happen for the club. The appointment as coach in 1998 of former Mito Hollyhock boss Yuuji Nakano was the catalyst and later the same year, his team gained promotion to the Kanto University League Division 2. They were immediately relegated back to prefectural level, but the end of 2001 saw RKU battle their way through the Play-offs into the Kanto University League again.

Quickly becoming more accustomed to regional football, Nakano’s outfit were promoted having won the Division 2 title in 2003 – and at the end of a successful 2004 in Division 1, RKU were put forward by the All-Nippon University FA as the university candidates for a possible place in the JFL. In the First Round of the Regional League Play-offs, TDK and the military men of Kanto Leaguers MSDF Atsugi Marcus proved no obstacle to the students from Ibaraki - and the following week, a 3-1 win in their final match against Luminozo Sayama confirmed a surprise promotion.

Making their JFL debut in 2005, then, RKU were for the majority of the campaign rooted to thirteenth position – fourth from bottom – a long way behind the next weakest team, SC Tottori. Things were very similar the following year, but the club just had enough to stay out of the bottom two, despite such results as an 8-0 hammering at home to Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo.

The problem for Yuuji Nakano and his players is that in the coming seasons more and more JFL clubs are likely to have the resources to put in improved performances. Ryutsu Keizai University’s task is simply to try and remain competitive at this level, as the make up of the third tier changes around them. And that may be a challenge too far.
JFL Team Profile - Mitsubishi Mizushima

When they looked back on the 2005 season, their first in the JFL, Mitsubishi Mizushima collectively and honestly described it as having been "an ordeal". With two wins and two draws in thirty matches, the Okayama prefecture-based club ended up with just eight points and indeed on two separate occasions during the campaign they endured excruciating eleven-game losing streaks.

After finishing rock bottom of the table, things had to improve for 2006 - most especially due to the fact that the JFL had re-introduced Relegation Play-offs and there therefore existed the strong possibility that the club could find itself demoted back to the Regional Leagues. A run of five defeats in June nevertheless saw the Red Adamant slip down into the bottom two, where they remained for almost the whole of the rest of the year.

Even so, there were some better results for Mitsubishi, such as a 4-0 away victory at Arte Takasaki and a 4-2 defeat of fellow strugglers Honda Lock, which brought to an end a period of eight games without the team scoring any goals at all. Seven wins and a next-to-bottom finish constituted some progress from the previous season, but it was only thanks to the JFL’s convoluted rules regarding the promotion of Rosso Kumamoto that the club avoided a Relegation Play-off and so maintained their status for 2007.

The history of the club, however, extends as far back as 1946, when in the immediate aftermath of World War II football fans in a decimated Okayama prefecture decided to form a club at the Mitsubishi car factory, as a focus for their interest and as a much-needed opportunity for recreation. In 1965, Mitsubishi Motors Mizushima – not to be confused with the separate Mitsubishi Oil Mizushima club, which has participated on and off in the Chugoku League for 25 years - were among the founder members of the Okayama Prefectural League Division 1, although it wasn't until 1979 that they themselves reached the Chugoku League.

The club were to last only three years at the higher level before being relegated back to the Prefectural League, but in 1990 regained their Regional status and two seasons later were crowned champions for the first time. This feat was repeated in 1999 and the Red Adamant shortly afterwards entered the most successful phase in their history, winning the title three years running from 2002 onwards - a period during which they lost only one match out of 38 in the league.

2004 ended with Mizushima taking part in the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off, where narrow wins over Shizuoka FC and AS Laranja Kyoto earned them a place in the Final Stage. Once there, the boys in red drew with Kanto Leaguers Luminozo Sayama before beating Ryutsu Keizai University and Kyushu champions Honda Lock to make it through to the JFL.

A supporters’ organisation was also established in the shape of the Red Adamant Club – an adamant apparently being another name for a diamond - thus reflecting the fact that, as part of the Mitsubishi group, Mizushima are a sister club to J1 giants Urawa Reds. Early in 2005, the club became legally independent of Mitsubishi - a pre-requisite of J-League membership, to which they evidently aspire.

This would without a doubt be a boost for football in a part of the country that otherwise boasts only Sanfrecce Hiroshima and SC Tottori in the J-League and JFL. But whether Mizushima have in place the infrastructure in place to support the players on the pitch is - unfortunately for the Red Adamant supporters - a very different matter.
JFL Team Profile - JEF Reserves

When the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off tournament to decide promotion from the Regional Leagues into the JFL began at the end of November 2005, most fans had a clear idea who were the favourites to win through and who were the real outsiders. So the fact that Rosso Kumamoto and their neighbours from Okinawa, FC Ryukyu, lined up as JFL members come the start of the 2006 season will surprise no-one - but the appearance among the elite of Japanese non-league football of JEF United Amateurs (known in 2006 as JEF Club, but now JEF Reserves) was a very different matter.

For as recently as 2002, JEF were embarking upon their first-ever season of competition in their local Prefectural League in Chiba, immediately gaining promotion to the Kanto League Division 2. In 2004, they took the Division 2 title and the following year, after a slow start the team were soon competing well in Division 1 with teams such as Saitama SC and MSDF Atsugi Marcus for second spot behind clear leaders Luminozo Sayama. In the final fixture of the season, JEF clinched a top two finish and a place in the Play-offs thanks to a 5-1 win over YSCC.

The First Round of the Play-offs proved to be nerve-wracking stuff indeed, as the Yellows fought tooth and nail with the favourites - experienced Tohoku League side TDK - for the single qualifying position. Throwing caution to the wind in the last match, however, JEF roared to a 7-0 thrashing of Norbritz Hokkaido to go through on goal difference.

A week later in the Final Stage, a vital 2-0 win over Banditonce Kobe from Kansai set the team off on the right foot and, despite subsequently losing to FC Ryukyu, a goal from Brazilian striker Danilo then helped JEF to a remarkable 2-1 defeat of everyone’s hot tips, Rosso Kumamoto. Second place was good enough and the outsiders were, to the surprise of all, members of the JFL for 2006.

But aside from their success on the pitch, the other facet of the club that to raise eyebrows has been their status as an amateur team under the umbrella of J1 side JEF United. JEF Amateurs were established in 2000, based on the model of German and Italian clubs including within their structures an amateur XI that plays in the lower leagues as a kind of reserve team.

In Japan, however, this is an unusual arrangement - Tokushima Vortis Amateurs are perhaps the only other directly comparable example, given that over in the Hokushinetsu League Japan Soccer College has a role as an educational foundation role within the youth set-up of Albirex Niigata. The hope from JEF United's point of view is that it will help them not only to unearth new young talent to begin with, but also to develop players more quickly to the point where they can make the transition to the ranks of the first team proper.

Once promoted to the JFL in 2006, though, three straight defeats with no goals scored did not exactly constitute a dream start for the then JEF Club - but in what turned out to be an extremely inconsistent year they did achieve some good results, such as a 4-1 defeat of Yokogawa Musashino. The JEF United infrastructure and, ironically, their professionalism gave the amateur club an advantage with which many of the smaller JFL teams could not compete, a finish just below half way representing a perfectly satisfactory year’s work.
JFL Team Profile - Honda FC

Based just down the road from J1 giants Jubilo Iwata, Honda FC have long been one of the traditional powerhouses of the Japanese non-league game and indeed can perhaps be considered to be the strongest club never to have moved into the J-League. They were formed in 1971 and quickly went up through the Shizuoka Prefectural League to the Tokai League, where Honda won the title in both 1973 and 1974.

At that time, however, Regional League success was unconnected with gaining JSL status. It was instead as a result of having won the 1974 All-Japan Shakaijin that the Reds took part in a Promotion / Relegation Play-off against the bottom team in Division 2 of the JSL, Ibaraki Hitachi, who were duly dispatched 3-1 on aggregate.

Winning the divisional title in 1978, Honda lost a Play-off to Furukawa Electrics, but in 1980 they triumphed again and on this occasion, automatic promotion to the top flight followed. Over the next decade, the team were mostly to be found in low mid-table, their highest finish being a couple of third spots, but in 1992, the club game in Japan was drastically overhauled as the J-League was established and the JSL re-organised into the JFL.

Despite a wobble when they were relegated for a single year into the short-lived JFL Division 2, Honda then began to emerge as real contenders among teams like Consadole Sapporo and Montedio Yamagata, who by that time were preparing for life in J2. The Reds’ first JFL title was duly picked up in 1996 - Vissel Kobe ended up second and Tokyo Gas, the corporate forerunners to FC Tokyo, third - and indeed since the JFL was further re-constituted in 1999, the club have on only one occasion finished outside the top two.

With subsequent JFL championship crowns in 2001, 2002 and a comfortable win in 2006, Honda have much to be proud of in terms of on-the-field success, as well as having earned a reputation as a developer of young footballing talent. But despite all these considerable strengths, there has nevertheless come to be something of a question mark hanging over the future of Honda FC.

This uncertainty stems from their parent company's corporate stance in refusing to finance a J-League bid (in fact, Honda have actively turned down places in J2 that were available to them). The environment around the club has begun to change rapidly and, in specifically aiming for the J-League, many of Honda's JFL rivals have adopted a very different view of the idea of the development of club football in Japan.

One wonders, therefore, if the corporation's unwillingness to make a further financial commitment will have an impact upon the calibre of players that their football team are able to attract, thus eroding the club's strength on the pitch. Players still hoping for a career among the professionals - who in the past might have been keen to go to Honda after finishing university, say - would potentially be more interested now in ambitious teams like Tochigi SC, Rosso Kumamoto or even SC Tottori.

Looking further ahead, an additional difficulty for Honda might come in the form of league re-organisation, something which in the past they have been able to ride to their advantage. It is not too hard to imagine a scenario in a few years' time where the majority of JFL clubs are effectively waiting their turn to get into an expanded J-League, potentially leaving Honda high and dry as some kind of last bastions of amateurism.
JFL Team Profile - FC Ryukyu

There can be few Japanese clubs who have packed as much into their short history as FC Ryukyu. With a squad made up in part with players from neighbours Okinawa Kariyushi, the club was formed in early 2003, the intention being to become the first J-League team in the southern archipelago of Okinawa. Later that year, Ryukyu dipped their toe into the sea of competition in Division 3 (North) of the Okinawa Prefectural League - and raced to the title, amassing a staggering ninety two (92) goals in their nine games, conceding only two.

In the close season, 30,000 signatures were added to a local petition expressing support for the establishment of a J-League team in the area and Ryukyu were fast-tracked by the Okinawa FA, straight to the giddy heights of the Prefectural League Division 1. Prior to the start of the 2004 campaign, however, in order to oversee the next stage of the team’s on-the-pitch development, a new coach was appointed in the shape of Jorge Yonashiro.

A key figure in the pre-J-League days of Japanese football, following his retirement as a player, Yonashiro coached at both Nagoya Grampus 8 and Kyoto Purple Sanga before heading down to Ryukyu. He was quickly followed by vital new signings such as Shinji Fujiyoshi - a forward who had represented Japan at the Barcelona Olympics and had picked up extensive J-League experience with Verdy Kawasaki, Kyoto and Vegalta Sendai – and ex-Albirex Niigata midfielder Ricardo Higa, as Ryukyu worked to improve their squad for the challenges ahead.

Despite actually drawing one of their league matches, the club nevertheless took the Okinawa Prefectural League championship and then swept aside their three opponents (aggregate score: 21-0) in the promotion play-offs to claim a place in the Kyushu League. They’d also provided further evidence of the team’s ability to compete at a higher level in the Emperor’s Cup competition, running J2 outfit Montedio Yamagata close in a 3-2 defeat after extra time.

2005 therefore saw the club arrive at Regional League level - and right from the start of the season, there was little doubt in the minds of local fans that the most significant confrontations would be between Ryukyu and their monied rivals Rosso Kumamoto. A 7-0 drubbing of troubled Kariyushi in round 2 had them charging out of the blocks and it was really only Rosso that caused Yonashiro’s men any serious difficulties: 1-0 defeats home and away pushed Ryukyu into second position and gave Rosso the championship.

A place in the Regional League Championship Winners Play-off tournament nevertheless beckoned and with Ricardo Higa dominant, the team dismissed Luminozo Sayama and Sagawa Kyubin Chugoku in the First Round – Higa then proving the hero in the opening match of the Final Stage, nicking in a stoppage time free-kick for a 1-1 draw against Rosso, who were then sensationally beaten 5-4 on penalties. The following day, a late own goal gave Ryukyu a 1-0 win over JEF United Amateurs and a spot in the JFL was sealed.

But 2006 didn’t work out as planned for the Okinawans and, while Rosso remained in the title race almost throughout the season, Ryukyu were in spite of their sizable home support unable to make their presence felt and spent the entire year stuck in the bottom third. Results such as a 6-0 thrashing at home to Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo made it inevitable that Yonashiro and a large proportion of his underachieving squad would move on and the club did well to replace him as coach with Hideo Yoshizawa from champions Honda FC.
JFL Team Profile - FC Kariya

FC Kariya are effectively a re-launch of the old Denso club, originally formed under the auspices of the Nippon Denso company as long ago as 1949. They made their way into the Tokai League in 1989 and after only two or three seasons had become one of the better sides in the division, alongside other corporates like Seino Transportation and JATCO.

Nippon Denso first won the Tokai League title in 1993 on goal difference from JATCO and then battled their way through to the very last stages of the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off tournament, only to lose 2-0 to NEC Yamagata and thereby miss out on promotion to Division 2 of the JSL. Two years later, however, the club emerged undefeated from a nineteen-game Tokai League campaign and made no mistake in the Play-offs, seeing off Yokogawa Electric and YKK to move up together with Oita FC.

Life in the JFL nevertheless proved tough and the re-named Denso team narrowly avoided picking up the wooden spoon in 1996, the conceding of an average three goals a game indicating that the problem lay in defence. Modest improvements were made before league re-organisation at the end of 1998 and with the majority of JFL clubs going on to populate J2 in 1999, the club suddenly found itself one of the better teams outside of the ranks of the professionals.

But by not much later than the turn of the century, Denso were already in decline and in recent years have been scrapping it out at the wrong end of the JFL table - a point underlined in late 2004, when champions-elect Otsuka Pharmaceuticals handed them an 11-0 crushing. In those dark times, Nippon Denso seemed apathetic in its attitude and the under-funded club were heading nowhere but down.

Until that is, the summer of 2005, when rumours began to surface of discussions between the parent company and the local council in Kariya. It became clear over the coming months that Nippon Denso were willing to relinquish control of the football club to an NPO that would run it as a community-based outfit, representing Kariya City's 140,000 citizens.

By the end of the year, all of the necessary arrangements and transfers of responsibility had taken place and 2006 therefore saw the new FC Kariya club in a position to make a fresh start. Whereas previously the Denso company had amply demonstrated that they had no interest in their team pursuing J-League membership, the establishment of the reconstituted club conceivably meant that they might take steps towards becoming a second J-League club in the Nagoya area.

Prior to the 2006 season, the messages coming from FC Kariya concentrated more on the setting down of roots in the local community and thereby seeking to establish a solid fanbase - something notably lacking from the Denso era - than on battling it out for promotion from the JFL. The NPO appointed former Nagoya Grampus 8 midfielder Nariyasu Yasuhara as coach and it was unfortunate to say the very least that Yasuhara’s new charges kicked things off so disastrously, taking a 6-0 hammering from Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo in the first home fixture in front of an impressive gate of 1080.

Kariya subsequently weathered the storm and always had just about enough points in the bag to keep them away from Mitsubishi Mizushima and Honda Lock at the bottom of the table. As a result, Yasuhara kept his job and has even gone on to state that he will be aiming for a top three finish in 2007. This looks very unlikely, but the progress of FC Kariya will be something on which JFL fans will keep a particular eye over the coming seasons.
JFL Team Profile - FC Gifu

Formed in April 2001, FC Gifu have incorporated within their structure players from a range of educational institutions within their home prefecture, but were based in particular upon a team from Gifu Keizai University. With support from a range of sponsors and from the Prefectural FA, the club were established specifically to bring J-League football to the area and have made rapid progress following their entry into the Gifu Prefectural League.

After a promising debut season in 2001, FC Gifu took the league title with a 100% record in both of the next two years, finally gaining promotion to Division 2 of the Tokai League for 2004. Regional football immediately put the club into competition with much more experienced sides like Maruyasu Industries - but in a hard-fought season they were nevertheless disappointed to finish third, missing out on promotion to Nagoya Club only by dint of a slightly inferior goal difference.

2005 therefore was a key stage in the development of FC Gifu as an ambitious organisation with its sights set on the professional game. After the failure of the previous year, coach Masayuki Katsuno was allowed to bring in former Nagoya Grampus 8 forward and one-time international Yasuyuki Moriyama as the club aimed for promotion to Division 1.

It turned into a thrilling season’s football, a three-way battle for the two promotion spots between Gifu, Sagawa Kyubin Chukyo and the Shizuoka prefectural teachers’ team, Fuyo Club. By the time the last round of fixtures arrived in early October, Sagawa were on top with 27 points, while Fuyo and Gifu were level on 26. Sensationally, Gifu travelled to bottom-placed Toyota Industries and handed out a 7-0 thrashing to scrape into the top flight by the narrowest of margins.

The challenge of Division 1 in 2006 saw Katsuno shunted upstairs to the role of General Manager, another ex-international coming in to take over as coach in the form of Tetsuya Totsuka. Totsuka’s squad was packed with top-level experience and it was clear from the start that Gifu would provide strong opposition for regional giants Shizuoka FC in the fight to gain a place in the JFL.

And so it proved, as the Greens claimed a draw in the pouring rain at Shizuoka on the opening day. Midway through the year, goals from Hiromi Kojima and former Oita Trinita defender Tetsuya Ito gave Gifu a 2-0 win over their deadly rivals to move them three points clear at the top of the table and after that, it was pretty much plain sailing. The presence of a crowd in excess of 12,000 at the match against Yazaki Valente was one highlight, but the championship itself was confirmed with one game still remaining.

Having risen from Prefectural football to the threshold of competition on a national stage, FC Gifu were next faced with the Regional League Championship Winners’ Play-off tournament and a repeat of their clashes with Shizuoka, alongside whom they were drawn in the First Round. But Totsuka and his team emerged victorious from the group, having hammered FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu from Kansai in the decider to confirm a place in the Final Stage.

A shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of TDK in the opening match put Gifu up against it, but a second-place finish was still enough to secure an additional Play-off with Honda Lock, the JFL’s bottom side. Young striker Atsushi Katagiri played the starring role by scoring three goals in an 8-1 aggregate win and after six seasons, the Greens were in the JFL and a step closer to achieving their ambition.
JFL Team Profile - Arte Takasaki

If you had prior to about 2005 read anything on the subject of JFL teams seeking a J-League place, you would no doubt have been told that one of the main candidates were Arte Takasaki from Gunma prefecture. Their short history had seen some good progress being made - the club was formed under its current structure as recently as 2000, although a parent team existed for four years before that - and in the past they have consistently put themselves forward as candidates for promotion.

But there are two problems that currently face the club management: one, they don't have anywhere to call a home stadium (a requirement for J-League membership). Two, they're just not good enough on the pitch. Given the fact that the race for J2 is becoming ever more pressurised, it must have been with mounting discomfort that Takasaki fans have viewed the even more rapid emergence of clubs such as Rosso Kumamoto and FC Gifu - better-organised and potentially with better players than their own under-performing team.

Arte Takasaki began life as Macky FC Kanto in the Gunma Prefectural League, the first of many name changes occurring in 2000, when the club was re-formed as Gunma FC Fortuna. A couple of years later they had reached the Kanto League competing as Gunma FC Horikoshi and at the end of 2003, trounced FC Kyoto BAMB 1993 5-0 in a Promotion / Relegation Play-off - and the JFL had been reached.

The team were known solely as FC Horikoshi during 2005, but at the end of the year invited suggestions from supporters for yet another new name, Arte Takasaki being the result ("arte" is apparently a mangled combination of the Portuguese word for "art" and the Greek goddess of hunting, Artemis; Takasaki is their home city).

Despite their previously lofty ambitions, the truth of the matter is that they have never been more than a mid-table JFL side, having finished eighth in both 2004 and 2005. In an attempt to boost their standing, however, early 2006 saw Arte make the somewhat surprising announcement that their coach for the season would be Kim Guan Ho, a 55-year-old former North Korean international who began his senior footballing career in 1977 with the Japan-based Resident Korean Football Group and formerly coach for Tokyo's Korea University team.

Kim’s reign at Arte got off to such a poor start that he was sacked after just half a dozen games. The club essentially imploded later in the summer, with the departure of the bulk of their first-team squad along with Kim's replacement, Kazuyoshi Hamaguchi. While Arte's third boss of 2006, Brazilian player-coach Alemal, deserved some credit for steering the team away from stormy waters and concluding the season with a respectable enough finish, Gunma's dreams of sending a second team to the J-League were as far from reality as they had ever been.

Even with the ambitious appointment in early 2007 of Argentinian / Italian Jorge “Pipo” Rossi as coach, Arte Takasaki must now be considered remote candidates for the professional game. They have struggled to compete on too many fronts – on the pitch, of course, but their administration has long needed to improve and the issue of the home stadium has never been resolved. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the club failed to develop enough momentum to their push and that as a consequence, their dream of J-League football is now more or less over.
JFL Team Profile - Alo's Hokuriku

Toyama prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast of Honshu, is in a confused position as far as the development of a J-League team in the area is concerned. The area is certainly big enough to support a professional side, but while in other parts of Japan, local ambitions are focused upon one particular club aiming for a place among the elite of the country’s club football, Toyama's position at present is somewhat unfocused.

A particularly long bet, for example, might be for Valiente Toyama – promoted at the end of 2006 to the Hokushinetsu League Division 1 - while arguably the strongest local non-league side over the last few seasons have been YKK AP, whose parent company have consistently indicated that they have no wish to finance a professional club.

All of which leaves the most likely Toyama candidates for future J-League membership as YKK AP’s deadly rivals Alo's Hokuriku, formed in 1990 under the snappy name of their own parent company, Hokuriku Electric Power. The club quickly became established in the Hokushinetsu League and in 1996 came close to their first title win, missing out only on goal difference to Albireo Niigata - forerunners, of course, to current J1 side Albirex. In the same year, the decision was also taken to change the team's moniker to the rather friendlier Alo's Hokuriku, a corrupted reference to the antelopes which live in the nearby mountains.

Two years later, Alo's pipped YKK to their first Hokushinetsu League title, but failed to make it past the Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off, losing out to Hitachi Shimizu and Hokkaido Electric Power. In 1999, though, they were not to be denied when - despite finishing runners-up to YKK in their Regional League - they nevertheless gained a place in the Play-offs. Once there, the team won all six fixtures, including a revenge match against Hokkaido Electric Power in the First Round, to battle their way through to the top tier of the non-league game in Japan.

In all honesty the club have not exactly set the JFL alight since gaining promotion, but they have in recent seasons been showing signs of improvement. 2005 saw a blistering series of nine wins and two draws in the last eleven matches saw them finish the year with a bang. Indeed, halfway through this run, a crowd in excess of 10,000 fans at Toyama Stadium witnessed Alo's put in a magnificent performance against J1 giants Nagoya Grampus 8 in the Emperor's Cup, going down only 1-0 to a goal early in the second half.

2006 was something of a downturn, when after a good start the team underwent a miserable mid-season period of only three wins in fifteen. Even so, they held on to a top-half-of-the-table finish and remained on the distant fringes of the promotion race throughout the campaign. In Yoshio Kitagawa, Alo’s also boasted one of the top scorers in the division: a foil to a particularly strong defence.

Tentative discussions instigated by the Toyama FA into the possibility of creating a “Toyama United” J-League candidate via a merger between Alo’s and YKK have never come to anything - but Alo's have gradually turned themselves into a more competitive side, without yet having issued any declaration of intent as regards making an immediate bid for a place in the J-League. A continuation of the better results of the last couple of years could see the development of more local momentum in terms of business and fan support, and it therefore remains a possibility that the club will make a serious attempt to gain promotion from the JFL in the next few seasons.
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