• Kyodo

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Avispa Fukuoka returned to the J. League first division for the first time since 2011 with a 1-1 draw to Cerezo Osaka in the promotion playoff final on Sunday.

Fukuoka, which was 14th last season, became the first third-place team to be promoted through the playoff since the format began in 2012. As the lower side on the J2 table, fourth-place Cerezo had to win in order to punch their ticket to the top flight.

Hokuto Nakamura scored a dramatic 87th-minute equalizer to cancel Keiji Tamada’s opener earlier in the second half.

“I like to think this was the reward for working hard all year,” Fukuoka manager and former Japan captain Masami Ihara said. “We left everything out there on the pitch today.

“We gave away the first goal and the going got tough, but we never gave in for the entire 90 minutes. The boys ran their hearts out and that’s what led to the equalizer.”

“Hokuto scored a brilliant goal, but the spirit of the whole club drove that strike. We’ve been training with the determination to return to J1 all season.”

On the league’s final day of fixtures, Fukuoka fell behind on the hour mark when Tamada broke the deadlock after playing a one-two with Kunimitsu Sekiguchi.

Avispa, though, did not panic and began pushing up after being bossed around for most of the game. And as the clock ticked away at Nagai Stadium, it was Nakamura who started and finished the counterattack with a smashing strike from a tight right angle that lifted the Kyushu club back to J1.

“I hit it as hard as I could because I didn’t take an opportunity I should’ve taken earlier in the match,” Nakamura said. “This is just the start. We’ll celebrate today but get ready for next year right away.”

Fukuoka will be joined in the first division in 2016 by J2 champions Omiya Ardija and runners-up Jubilo Iwata, who were both promoted automatically.

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