|

First-class final caps fine year for second tier

by Andrew Mckirdy

FC Tokyo and Kyoto Sanga’s all-J2 Emperor’s Cup final on Sunday was a high-profile showcase for the J. League second division, but away from the spotlight there is plenty to suggest the lower tier is in rude health.

No team from J2 had ever reached the New Year’s Day final prior to Sunday’s match, but Tokyo and Kyoto both overcame a series of first-division opponents to book their places at National Stadium. Giant-killing acts are standard in any cup competition, but the fact that many of this year’s upsets came as little surprise suggests the gap between the divisions is not as great as it once was.

The most obvious evidence of this is, of course, Kashiwa Reysol’s achievement of winning the 2011 J. League championship just a year after clinching the second-division title. But while Kashiwa’s triumph was unprecedented and undeniably impressive, it was not entirely without warning.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Cerezo Osaka have both stepped up to immediately claim places in the Asian Champions League in recent years with fourth- and third-place league finishes, respectively, and both have proved their efforts were no fluke by going on to establish themselves as fixtures in J1.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are the teams who have reached the top flight only to sink without trace the moment they get there. Avispa Fukuoka lost their opening nine games of a chastening 2011 campaign among the elite, while the likes of Shonan Bellmare and Consadole Sapporo have also bombed miserably following promotion in recent seasons.

There is clearly a difference, then, between the heavyweights who have the means to keep hold of their star names in the event of relegation, and the aspiring hopefuls for whom reaching the big time is the culmination of years of hard work scrapping it out in the basement. National team players such as Yasuyuki Konno, Shuichi Gonda and Naohiro Ishikawa stuck around to help Tokyo bounce back from demotion and win the J2 title this season, while Reysol, Cerezo and Sanfrecce have all dropped down in the past with minimal changes to their squads.

There will always be a gap between the haves and the have-nots, but there were encouraging signs in 2011 that the smaller second-division teams are making strides in the right direction. Tokyo may have won the title at something of a canter after a slow start, but Sagan Tosu clinched promotion for the first time, while Tokushima Vortis, Tochigi SC and Giravanz Kitakyushu all put together impressive campaigns before falling short of a place in the top three.

Giravanz in particular provided hope for smaller clubs that top-level soccer is more than just a pipe dream. The Kyushu side — admitted as a full J. League member only in 2010 — finished rock bottom with just one win from 36 games in its debut season, but responded by flirting with the promotion places on its way to a hugely credible 8th-place finish in 2011.

With the introduction next season of a playoff series for the third- to sixth-place teams, and with Machida Zelvia and Matsumoto Yamaga joining to further expand the division to 22 clubs, J2 shows no sign of standing still just yet.

All eyes will be on Tokyo to see if it can emulate Kashiwa in winning consecutive second- and first-division titles, but for those with more modest ambitions, there is still plenty to play for.