Soccer | From the Spot

Woeful Tosu facing turmoil on and off pitch

by Dan Orlowitz

Once protest banners emerge behind the goal and applause turns to jeering following loss after loss, J. League clubs tend to draw from a limited arsenal in order to placate fans and turn things around.

Sometimes the captain will address fans after the match, other times the manager or sporting director are called out onto the carpet by supporter groups to explain the state of the team.

A letter of apology published by the chairman himself is the next step, usually within close proximity to a change of manager.

It’s therefore incredibly curious that on Monday, last-place Sagan Tosu moved to win over its growing legion of displeased fans with a short social media video reframing its struggles as that of an underdog club fighting to build a following and urging supporters to rally behind the players.

The video’s heartfelt tone marked a dramatic departure from one posted earlier in April in which the club’s Chief Rap Officer, hip-hop artist Dotama, implored players to “score more goals” in a blistering freestyle.

The underdog narrative is one Tosu arguably deserves, having managed to stick it out in the top flight since it became the last of the second division’s founding members to earn promotion at the end of the 2011 campaign.

But with morale plummeting in both the locker room and the stands, a minute-long clip will hardly be enough to paper over the issues facing the Kyushu side on or off the pitch.

That was clear from an April 18 meeting between management and supporters, where club chairman Minoru Takehara apologized for comments just four days earlier in which he said that fans “shared responsibility” for the team’s results.

Those results speak for themselves — in addition to just four points from nine games, Tosu has set a new record for J. League futility with just one goal in that span, scored against 17th-place Jubilo Iwata.

That goal was scored by Isaac Cuenca, the former Barcelona winger who was supposed to serve as a foil to Tosu’s star striker Fernando Torres as well as complement the tactics of newly installed Spanish manager Lluis Carreras.

Torres, whose annual salary is estimated to be between $4-8 million, has just three goals in 24 appearances since arriving last summer from Atletico Madrid. His signing, along with fellow countryman Andres Iniesta’s move to Vissel Kobe, was heralded as the start of a new star-studded era for the J. League.

Yet while the former Premier League star drew fans to Best Amenity Stadium (now known as Ekimae Real Estate Stadium), goals were slow to come and results slower, even with the addition of Japan international Mu Kanazaki.

As Tosu hovered close to the drop zone, then-manager Massimo Ficcadenti chafed against pressure to use Torres — one of several factors that eventually resulted in his mid-October dismissal.

That move came with a price in the form of the Italian’s severance package, adding to Sagan’s financial woes on top of Torres’ salary and the departure of Cygames, one of the club’s biggest sponsors. On Sunday, Sagan’s holding company released its 2018 financial report, revealing a deficit of around $5.2 million despite a record $32 million in net revenue.

That announcement came days after the club’s official minutes of the mid-April supporter meeting was released, drawing criticism for its short length and tone.

While the meeting was closed to the press, a clearer picture of the discussion emerged after amateur writer Ryo Tsukamoto published a contemporaneous account on Japanese blogging site note.mu.

His writeup revealed dissatisfaction from fans on a number of issues beyond Takehara’s controversial statements, including the departure of players from Tosu’s academy teams due to a lack of playing time, fewer public training sessions, a decrease in transparency regarding player injuries and the club’s inability to schedule high-profile international friendlies despite offers from European clubs.

Responding to inquiries regarding Carreras’ status, top team coach and interpreter Kim Jon-fun urged patience, telling participants that “this is the first year of reform and we need more time,” according to Tsukamoto.

But with Tosu having lost two matches since the supporter meeting and an ever-important Kyushu Derby at Oita Trinita coming up on Saturday, it’s unclear just how much time remains on the clock.

According to Tsukamoto, Takehara claimed Tosu’s season ticket holders have risen from 3,900 to over 5,000 in the eight seasons since earning promotion to the J1, with Torres’ signing failing to provide a significant boost in this year’s sales.

Those numbers are an indication of how difficult it has been for Tosu to establish a foothold in the struggling Fukuoka-area sports market — and how much the club has to lose if it gets relegated back to the J2.

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