Teams around the J. League have been busy parading their winter recruits this week, but if the recent travails of several promoted sides are anything to go by, this year’s J1 new boys will need all the reinforcements they can get.
Ventforet Kofu, Shonan Bellmare and Oita Trinita have all begun preparations for the top-flight campaign ahead after escaping the second division last season, and all will be looking to avoid the example set last year by Consadole Sapporo. The Hokkaido club became the fastest-relegated team in J. League history after slipping through the trapdoor before the end of September, continuing a dismal trend of newly promoted teams bowing out at the first attempt with point totals frequently lower than 20.
Bellmare, Ventforet, Avispa Fukuoka, Tokyo Verdy, Kyoto Sanga and Yokohama FC have all suffered the same fate over the past seven seasons, although this year’s newcomers will prefer to dwell on the success stories that have occurred over the same period. Kashiwa Reysol won the 2011 championship hot on the heels of the second-division title, Cerezo Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima both earned places in the Asian Champions League immediately after promotion, and Sagan Tosu ended their debut campaign among the elite last year in a hugely credible fifth place.
Having each endured chastening first-division campaigns in the recent past, however, survival is more likely to be the priority for Ventforet, Bellmare and Trinita. Ventforet bounced back from relegation in 2011 to win J2 in style last season, but manager Hiroshi Jofuku knows his team cannot afford to stand still.
“If we stay at the same level we were at last year, we’ll be in for a tough season,” said Jofuku, who has added J1 experience to his squad in the shape of Koki Mizuno from Reysol and Naotake Hanyu from FC Tokyo, but has lost prolific on-loan striker Davi to Kashima Antlers. “Keeping the unity we had last year while also adding to our quality is crucial to being able to face J1 teams on an equal footing.”
Nowhere will that sentiment chime louder than at Trinita, who take their place in the first division having won the inaugural J2 promotion playoffs last year — despite finishing the regular season in sixth.
“My personality is such that I’m not content to be last or somewhere around the middle,” said Oita manager Kazuaki Tasaka. “You always have to be aiming for the top, and that’s what I’ll be telling my players.”
If recent history repeats itself, the reality could be somewhat different.
There is still plenty of time for teams to make their move in the transfer market before the J. League season begins on March 2, but Urawa Reds have stolen a march on their rivals with a series of early signings.
Defender Tomoaki Makino made his one-year loan from FC Cologne permanent before being joined by former Sanfrecce Hiroshima teammate Ryota Moriwaki, and the 2006 champions have reinforced further with the addition of Vegalta Sendai midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi, Kashima Antlers striker Shinzo Koroki and Kashiwa Reysol utility man Daisuke Nasu.
“Until now I had always been on the opposing team here, and Saitama Stadium was always an intimidating place to play at,” Nasu said on Tuesday. “The pressure always makes it a place that opponents don’t like coming to.
“Now that we’re on the same side, the support of the crowd will give me strength.”
A run to the Emperor’s Cup semifinals meant that Yokohama F. Marinos’ 2012 season ended less than three weeks ago, but manager Yasuhiro Higuchi is already looking forward to the new campaign.
Higuchi saw his ambitions of leading Marinos into the Emperor’s Cup final for the first time in 20 years thwarted by Kashiwa Reysol in the Dec. 29 semi at National Stadium, but after finishing fourth in the J. League in his first season in charge, the 51-year-old sees better times ahead.
“Last season we managed to finish fourth, and although we were only one step away from claiming a place in the Asian Champions League, the fact that we had 14 draws over the course of the season meant we couldn’t fulfill our objective,” Higuchi said at Marinos’ season-opening event on Monday.
“We also lost in the semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup just like we did the previous year, and it’s important to recognize that this is the level that the team is currently at. But I can feel that we are growing.”
Quotable: “Two plus nine equals 11, and Hisato Sato wears No. 11, so even if it brings me just a little bit closer to Hisato-san, I want to try my best.”
— New Sanfrecce Hiroshima recruit Takuma Asano draws inspiration from his captain and top scorer after being given the No. 29 shirt for the forthcoming season.