September Update: 89th Emperor’s Cup and Chugoku League 2009
Posted by stefanole on 2009/09/29
The 89th Emperor’s Cup began in earnest last weekend, as the first round proper was played across Japan. As I reported in a previous article, amateur and semi-pro teams across the country have been fighting it out across the country in the past few weeks in local competitions to decide who will be the representative for each of the 47 prefectures, plus one representative from the Japan Universities’ Football Association.
The Hiroshima prefectural competition was fought between sixteen teams, with high school and University teams roughly comprising half of the sides. Current national high school champions Hiroshima Minami fell in the semi-finals to the eventual winners, with Hiroshima Shudo University being the other losing semi-finalist, indicating the relative supremacy in the prefecture of scholastic football teams over their corporate cousins.
The prefectural final was played on the 30th of August at the Big Arch. Sagawa Kyubin Chugoku, one of the many corporate teams run by the Sawaga delivery group (there are two current Sagawa teams and one former Sagawa team in J3 alone), are currently the leaders of the Chugoku League (the equivalent of J4, see here for an explanation of the Japanese league system). They faced Fukuyama University, who had defeated Hiroshima Minami 4-1 in their semi-final game. In fact, Hiroshima Minami did something that Sagawa were unable to do: score a goal against Fukuyama Uni. The game ended 4-0 to the University side in what was obviously a pretty one-sided game.
The result meant that Fukuyama University had the honour of representing Hiroshima prefecture in the first round of the Emperor’s Cup (Sanfrecce Hiroshima, along with the other professional teams of J1 and J2, are seeded directly into the second round). They faced the winner of the Nagasaki prefecural competition, V-Varen Nagasaki. It was definitely one of the toughest draws of the round, since VVN are doing well in J3 and have recently been granted J-League Associate status (a necessity for teams wishing to promote to the professional J-League). Fukuyama Uni had the home advantage as the game was played at the Takegahana sports complex, but they were overcome by a score of one to nil. V-Varen will thus go on to play J1’s Yokohama F. Marinos in Nagasaki in October, but for Fukuyama it is back to the Universities league for another year. I do wish them and their students every luck though, specifically those who choose to pursue a career in the professional J-League (and I am sure there must be some).
As for Chugoku’s other representatives in the first round, only Yamaguchi-ken’s entry won their match (although they did it by eliminating Okayama’s J3 strugglers Mitsubishi Mizushima). Renofa Yamaguchi won the Chugoku League title in the 2008 season, but in 2009 they are trailing Sagawa Kyubin. Still, a second place finish will see them back at the All Japan Regional Football Promotion League Series, where they will have another shot at making it into J3, and hopefully onwards into the professional J-League. Their victory means they have booked a date with Kawasaki Frontale, a J1 team who are currently challenging (along with Sanfrecce) for the J1 title. Shimane’s Hamada FC Cosmos and Tottori’s Tottori Dreams FC are the other two Chugoku teams who didn’t make it through to the second round. They lost to the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya and Kamatamare Saunki respectively.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s introduction into the tournament should go a lot more smoothly. They face Japan Soccer College in the second round, who are representing Niigata prefecture. JSC overcame FC Gifu Second, 2nd XI to FC Gifu of J2 and the representatives of Gifu prefecture. Japan Soccer College is described as a “unique institution in Japan”, and teaches its students sports management and coaching as well as acting as a youth programme for J1’s Albirex Niigata. (This kind of adoption of a youth setup is reasonably common among J-League teams who want a quick and easy way to fulfil the J-League’s requirement that every team have an in-house youth programme.)
Sanfrecce will play the Japan Soccer College at the CocaColaWest Stadium Hiroshima in Nishi-ku on the 11th of October. If they win (as is very likely), they will probably play Sagan Tosu of J2 at the Big Arch in November. Sagan Tosu first have to play the representatives of Saga-ken however, in a match I will be keeping an eye on. This is because Saga-ken’s representatives are Saga Higashi High School, the only high school team in the Emperor’s Cup, and they are still in the Cup after they vanquished Wakayama-ken’s Arterivo Wakayama. Arterivo’s website indicates that they, along with dozens of other teams in Japan have ambitions of making it to the J-League, but I have to question their professionalism since their website has links to sections called “PHOTO GALERRY” and “ROAD TO J-LEAGE”.
J2’s newly-promoted Fagiano Okayama have a tougher draw, as they face mid-table Kataller Toyama in one of the J2-only second round games. Both teams were promoted from J3 last season, so it is an interesting reunion. But even if they win that game, Fagiano will most probably find their route through the competiton halted by Kawasaki Frontale in the third round.
Chugoku’s third seeded team is Gainare Tottori, another J3 team with J-League Associate Membership. They look good for promotion to J2 for next season, and I hope to see them in action before the end of the season. They will play Consadole Sapporo of J2 (and formerly of J1). If they can overcome Consadole, they will most probably face high-flying Shimizu S-Pulse of J1 in the third round.
To sum up, Sanfrecce’s chances of success in the Emperor’s Cup are pretty good. Their first real challenge will probably come from Gamba Osaka in the round of 16 (the fourth round). Sanfrecce have the home advantage due to their high seeding, and they have beaten Gamba recently in the Emperor’s Cup. In fact, Sanfrecce reached the final the 2007 Emperor’s Cup, only to fall 2-0 to Kashima Antlers. The only real problem with this scenario is that Sanfrecce had guaranteed their relegation to J2 a month earlier by losing the J1/J2 Playoff against Kyoto Sanga. Sanfrecce had their revenge two months later though as they won the 2008 Xerox Super Cup against the Antlers, so they do have good form in cup competitions. They have been the losing finalists on four occasions in the J-League era without winning it, and have won it three times in their previous incarnation as Toyo Industries (Mazda). There is every chance therefore, that come New Year’s Day 2010, the cup will be lifted by Hiroshima.
As for the Chugoku League, the competition goes into its final two rounds intriguingly poised. There is a three-horse-race at the top for the honour of winning the league itself between Sagawa Kyubin, Renofa Yamaguchi and NTN Okayama. Sagawa are in the driver’s seat with 40 points, but they are by no means out of sight as they are trailed by Renofa on 37 and NTN on 36. Possibly of more interest to those teams though is the prospect of a place in the All Japan Promotion Series (which, as previously mentioned, will go to the top two teams). The upcoming game between Renofa annd NTN thus takes on a particular significance: if either team wins both this game and their final game, they can guarantee a place at the Promotion Series.
At the other end of the table, JFE Steel Fukuyama appear to be in the middle of another remarkable escape from relegation. They pulled the same trick in the 2008 season as they survived by a single point, ensuring that Fujita SC of Hiroshima tumbled back into the Hiroshima prefectural league in their stead. By beating mid-table FC Ube Yahhh-man last weekend, they have pulled themselves out of a three-way-tie for last place, leaving Mazda SC of Hiroshima and Genki SC of Tottori adrift in the relegation zone by three points.
The match at the Hiroshima Stadium between Yahhh-man and Sagawa brought home to me the respective gulf in abilities in this league. Yahhh-man are not a bad team in the context of the Chugoku League (a 4th place finish last year and 4th place currently) but they were embarrassed 8-1 by a much more professional Sagawa side. Between them, Sagawa and Renofa have scored five or more goals in a game nine times over the course of the season, including a scoreline of 9-1 in the game between Sagawa and Genki SC. This vast difference in level could be explained by the fact that the Chugoku region can only support one regional-level division, whereas other regions can support two or more divisions before teams drop back into the prefectural leagues. It’s not that teams in the region lack ambition – Dezzolla Shimane and Yahhh-man have branded themselves in such a way that suggests they are aiming high, and Renofa Yamaguchi sell branded “ROAD TO JFL” towels on their official site – but they are just not competitive on the national stage, and will probably remain so without some serious local intervention in the same vein as Fagiano Okayama.
Finally, an honourable mention goes also to Gainare Tottori in J3. As I mentioned previously, Gainare have recently been granted J-League Associate Membership, and the main hurdle they have to overcome now to gain promotion to the J-League is to finish fourth or higher. They seem to be feeling the pressure at the moment, as they are hovering just outside the promotion zone in fifth place, three points behind Sony Sendai FC. They have seven games remaining to make the final push into the top four, and I hope to see them play before the end of the season when they take on Mitsubishi Mizushima in Okayama. I will post a separate match report if that happens.