SAITAMA - A clear autumn sky above Saitama Stadium offers endless possibilities, and that was again true on Saturday afternoon as Shonan Bellmare upset Yokohama F. Marinos to capture the club’s first-ever J. League YBC Levain Cup.
The two sides share little besides residency in Kanagawa Prefecture: Marinos, who claim City Football Group amongst their minority ownership, entered the game as likely favorites in their quest to win the tournament for the first time since 2001. Meanwhile, Bellmare was pegged by most as “just happy to be there” after their dramatic penalty-kick victory over Kashiwa Reysol in the semifinals.
Despite a reputation as being one of the J. League’s “big clubs,” a win would have given Yokohama only its first domestic title since the 2013 Emperor’s Cup. The wait was even longer for Bellmare, who had not lifted a major trophy since the 1996 Asian Cup Winners Cup.
“Credit to Shonan, they came out strong physically,” said Yokohama manager Ange Postecoglou who reached the final in his debut J. League season. “We found it hard to get a rhythm and get into the game. That’s their game, they’re very good at it.”
Instead of Yokohama’s high-powered attack spearheaded by Portuguese striker Hugo Vieira, it was Shonan which pushed forward from the opening minute. The men in green, led by veteran Tsukasa Umesaki in his first season since joining the seaside club from Urawa Reds, regularly created opportunities in the final third through a constant high press that forced turnover after turnover.
“We took it to them in the first half,” Bellmare manager Cho Kwi-jea said. “In the J1 we always wait to see how the match develops and surrender the ball and play defense, but today we held onto the ball and pushed forward and tried to create chances.”
Bellmare was rewarded for their efforts in the 36th minute when 20-year-old Daiki Sugioka scored his first goal of the competition by ripping a shot past Yokohama goalkeeper Hiroki Iikura from just outside the penalty area.
The BMW Stadium residents were unable to extend their lead before halftime, while Yuki Otsu’s 43rd-minute yellow card was emblematic of the frustration felt by his F. Marinos teammates.
“In the end they were more determined in the first half and it took us 45 minutes to get into the game. We had our chances and we didn’t take them and they ended up winning,” Postecoglou reflected.
A rejuvenated Yokohama came out of the locker room to look for an equalizer, putting Bellmare on the back foot for much of the second half. Serbian defender Dusan regularly bullied his way through the Bellmare midfield, and ace Sho Ito — just one month removed from surgery to repair a fracture in his right elbow — came on in the 78th minute in a last-ditch attempt to force extra time.
“He worked hard to be fit for the final. He had a pretty severe injury,” Postecoglou said. “To be honest it hasn’t healed properly but he was game to play today. I thought he made an impact, got into the box and caused problems.”
But Bellmare held strong under a constant barrage in the final minutes, with goalkeeper Yota Akimoto maintaining a clean sheet despite his team being outshot 11-3 in the second half.
The 31-year-old was praised by Cho as the team’s MVP of the tournament alongside defenders Miki Yamane, Keisuke Saka, and Kazunari Ono.
“My experiences at Tokyo (in 2016) showed me what I lacked as a goalkeeper, and I knew I had to work on that when I returned to Shonan. Now I have to aim even higher,” Akimoto said.
The result was the ultimate vindication for Cho Kwi-jea, who took his position in 2012 and has spent the last seven seasons imprinting his philosophy through regular seesaw trips between the first and second divisions and a nearly-constant outflow of promising young players to bigger clubs.
“We have a lot of players in our academy system who want to play for the top team, and most of them were here today,” Cho said, “and I’m glad we showed them what they can accomplish if they try their best.
“I was surprised that in their messages of support to the players, these elementary schoolers didn’t just write “please win” or “do your best,” but told us to play with “Shonan spirit.”
The victory in front of 44,242 in attendance at Saitama Stadium gave Bellmare an unforgettable way to celebrate their 50th anniversary, just months after becoming a subsidiary of personal fitness giants Rizap.
“This year Rizap joined us with the intent of building a stronger team, and they’ve been supporting the players and the team behind the scenes in terms of nutrition and other aspects,” Cho said. “I want to thank them and congratulate them. More than anything I hope we’ve given some good memories to our supporters who came today.”