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45th All Japan Senior Football Championship, and Politics of Japanese Football

Posted by stefanole on 2009/10/14

The 45th All Japan Senior Football Championship will kick off on the 17th of October in Ichihara, Chiba. The competition is run by the JFA and is open to all non-league teams (J4 and below). As such, it is equivalent to the FA Trophy or FA Vase in England. It is a straight knockout competition fought between 32 teams that will run over four days.

The winner (and runners-up, depending on availability) will win a place in the All Japan Promotion Series, where they will face the top teams from Japan’s regional leagues (of which the Chugoku League is one) for a place in the Japan Football League (J3).

The competition is seen as a stepping-stone to J-League membership, since many winners of the Shakaijin go on to promote to the professional leagues. The last team to do so was J2’s Roasso Kumamoto, in 2005.

Chugoku’s Shakaijin entrants

Sagawa Kyubin and Renofa Yamaguchi are the Chugoku League’s two representatives, though I can’t honestly say that they are likely to have a lot of success in the competition.

One reason is that while the Chugoku League season had not yet finished when the draw for the competition was made, Renofa’s victory over NTN Okayama on the 4th of October has confirmed their second-place finish (and thus a place at the Promotion Series). Sagawa will relinquish their grip on the Chugoku League title only if Renofa beat them by six clear goals in their season’s-end finale on the 25th of October. As such, the prize itself is meaningless to both teams.

This means that Sagawa and Renofa can take it easy at this stage with no real consequences (you could even argue that going for it and risking injuries at this stage of the season would be irresponsible). In contrast, the other teams at the Shakaijin know that this competition is their last chance for glory until next year, since their league tables were finalised as far back as August for the teams in the Hokushinetsu League. The pressure on young, ambitious teams with dreams of the big-time (of which there are many in Japan) is quite tangible.

For an example of the kind of competition the Chugoku teams will face at the Shakaijin, we need look no further than the Hokushinetsu League’s Matsumoto Yamaga. Last year’s Emperor’s Cup saw them defeat J2’s Shonan Bellmare in the third round (albeit on penalties), and just last weekend they completed a 2-0 giant-killing of J1’s Urawa Red Diamonds in the second round. Inconsistency in the league however saw them finish fourth, six points behind the top spot they needed to see them ‘walk towards the dream’ of a place in the Promotion Series, and eventually the J-League itself. (Incidentally, the team that finished top in that league was Japan Soccer College, who Sanfrecce saw off 5-0 in their own Emperor’s Cup meeting last weekend.) Yamaga play their home games at the 20,000-seater soccer-specific Matsumoto Stadium, and it is hard to imagine Renofa, whose home stadium is quoted as having a capacity of 3,850, being able to compete. (Incidentally, since Renofa have played their “home” games at five different grounds this season, I am unable really to compare them with the much less nomadic Yamaga. This itinerant existance is quite common for Chugoku League teams.)

The other reason that I am skeptical of the Chugoku pair’s chances, is that since Fagiano Okayama shot into J2 last year after achieving successive promotions from the Chugoku League and the JFL, the teams remaining in the league just aren’t very good. Sagawa and Renofa represented Chugoku at the Promotion Series last year, and lost all their games, propping up their respective pools at the group stage. The fact is that with Fagiano gone, and Gainare Tottori fighting for the fourth place in the JFL they need to promote to J2 (after finally getting the guarantee they needed from the local government to cover their debts that was stipulated by the J-League as a condition of entry), it is difficult to see where the region’s next professional team* might come from.

On the plus side, Sagawa and Renofa’s participation in the Shakaijin isn’t a complete waste of time. Both sides can take the opportunity to test themselves against a level of opposition similar to the one they will encounter at the Promotion Series, which will give the coaches a chance to work on any weaknesses. With the generally poor level of opposition in the Chugoku League, the Shakaijin starts to look like essential preparation for the Promotion Series. The competition should also help the Sagawa and Renofa boys to keep their fitness levels high and stay sharp ahead of the Series in November.

Politics of football in Japan

*Before anyone tries to suggest that there is another professional team in the area (other than Sanfrecce and Fagiano), as happened when I was discussing professional rugby teams, my personal definition of ‘professional’ in Japan includes the stipulation that the team play in a recognised professional league. In Japan, that means J1 or J2. This cuts out any potential bullshit where a Sagawa player, for example, could be considered a ‘professional’.

I have hinted at this problem previously, where the bosses of a company team will hire decent footballers and pay them as an employee of the company, but instruct them to work on the football field rather than at the factory or wherever. The parent companies figure that the company team is good advertising for their company, and possibly showcase their teams as a kind of employee benefit. I don’t have any first-hand information, so I am only guessing as to the motives, but the information comes from people who know a lot more about Japanese football and have many more contacts than myself.

I have heard rumblings however that the Japanese government is beginning to take notice of this practice, and is considering punishing companies that do this by designing a new tax (how else?). This is probably partly in response to complaints by the Japan Football Association over the number of corporate teams that populate the JFL and regional leagues.

The problem specifically is that, as a result of the Yokohama Flugels fiasco (where the well-supported J1 team was forcibly merged into the Yokohama Marinos when the Flugels’ backers, the Japanese airline ANA, decided they couldn’t afford to put up the cash anymore), one of the J-League’s conditions for entry is that the team be an independent entity, effectively a separate corporation that is supposed to be able to support itself.

As a result, the doors to the J-League are often quite firmly blocked at each level of the league pyramid by company teams who, by and large, have no intention of becoming independent and promoting to J2. This would probably not be so objectionable were it not for the aforementioned ploy that some sides practice, where they effectively cheat the system by using their parent company’s resources to bring in talented players. The inevitable deficit is made up by the fact that the parent company can chalk the loss off as a business expense, something which independent teams are obviously unable to do. That Renofa Yamaguchi is able to remain competitive in the Chugoku League is probably a testament to their organisation and local determination to have Yamaguchi represented on the national stage.

It is quite possible that the Japanese government has already warned these companies about getting their act together, which could explain why the Sagawa Kyoto team was merged into a local youth setup in 2006 to form MIO Biwako Kusatsu. The newly-independent team inherited a berth in the Kansai League, and subsequently won promotion to the JFL. It should also be noted that Sagawa Shiga, the current leaders of the JFL, was also formed in 2006 through the merger of the Sagawa Tokyo and Sagawa Osaka company teams, thereby presumably freeing up a JFL spot. (However, rather than allow the third-place team in the Promotion Series to promote, which incidentally was Fagiano Okayama, the Japan Football Association decided to only relegate one team after a playoff. The team that thus survived was Okayama’s Mitsubishi Mizushima.)

As for the rest of the JFL however, it is possible that they are waiting for the government to do its worst before they consider altering the status-quo. The current system is obviously too beneficial to the companies concerned for them to consider changing. A case-in-point is Honda FC, a company team which has won the JFL five times since the birth of the J-League in 1993, but has steadfastly refused to go independent and promote to the J-League. They even won the Shakaijin in 1999, the only season in which the Japan Football Association opened up the competition to JFL teams.

However, with the Japan Football Association and the J-League’s focus increasingly narrowing on ensuring the financial viability of football in Japan, the days are quite possibly numbered for what effectively amounts to an unfair business practice. The Japanese government has the opportunity to score some quite major points here, if they manage to effect the kind of change that will encourage competition and the creation of more professional, community-centred football clubs, and add some more tax money to the coffers at the same time.

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