Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Avispa Fukuoka traces its roots back to 1982, with the formation of the Chuo Bouhan Soccer Club in Shizuoka prefecture - a long way from the team's current home. The team took part in local competitions in the Shizuoka area until 1985, when it obtained corporate support and suddenly began a charge up the JSL ranks. Though still a member of the JSL 2nd division, the team was allowed to be one of the founding members of the JFL, which was the second tier when the J.League was formed in 1992. Between 1992 and 1995, the team made good progress through the JFL ranks, and its ambitions expanded far afield. In 1994, since there were already a large number of teams in the Shizuoka area (including Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata), so Chuo Bouhan was convinced to move its entire football club to Fukuoka, in Kyushu, where it took the official name Fukuoka Blux, later romanized as "Fukuoka Brooks".

The move had a positive impact on the team, since it immediately improved from a ninth place finish in 1993 to third place in 1994. In 1995, the team won the JFL championship, thereby gaining admission to the J.League. With its entry to the professional ranks, the team changed its name and its mascot, adopting the Spanish word "Avispa" (wasp) to refer to the aggressive yellowjackets that are so common in the Kyushu area. However, Fukuoka struggled constantly at the bottom of the table, and though it enjoyed decent home-town support, it consistently failed to produce good results on the pitch.

Avispa Fukuoka remained one of the cellar dwellers in the J.League continuously from the team's admission in 1995 through 2001. Until the 2000 season, the team never finished higher than 11th place. However, during their sojourn in J1, Avispa were generally viewed as a difficult opponent. The team tended to be physically imposing on defence, and relied on seasoned veterans whose experience and focus could occasionally allow the team to spring a surprise on the league leaders. They also gained a less-than-flattering reputation for physical play, leading the league in yellow and red cards. The addition of some talented foreigners, most notably Argentine forward David Bisconti, helped the team climb as high as sixth place in the 2nd Stage of the 2000 season. Fukuoka fans were finally hoping that this would finally bring an end to the team's long battle for respectability.

Unfortunately, the performances of late 2000 proved to be just a brief flirt with better results, and the following season the team was right back in the cellar. After struggling against relegation every year since the two-league format was introduced, Avispa finally succumbed at the end of 2001, and was relegated to J2 for the 2002 season.

Following their fall to J2, Avispa cut loose most of their top players and began retrenching. This strategy seems to have been a mistake, as it simply cemented their position as a mid-level division two club. In that sense, Avispa has followed the same path as Shonan Bellmare and Consadole Sapporo, who restructured their entire organizations after falling to J2, and never really recovered from the bloodletting. However, after floundering in the lower reaches of J2 for a while, the team slowly began to climb back onto its feet during the mid-00s. Avispa was fortunate enough to have a solid base of core supporters, and though its crowds were rather small in 2002 and 2003, the support was steady enough to provide a reasonable cash flow and help the team acquire a core of reasonably competitive players - mainly veterans who had fallen out of their starting positions at J1 clubs, or youngsters from the top high school teams in Kyushu. .

By 2004, Avispa was ready to make a bid to return to the J1. Midway through the 2004 season, the team landed midfielder Yuki Matsushita on loan from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, as well a quality striker in Edilson Jose da Silva. The addition of these two players gave Avispa enough of a boost to carry the team towards the top ranks of J2 in the second half of the season. Unfortunately, both Kawasaki Frontale and Omiya Ardija had already built too large a lead, and despite their late run, Avispa had to settle for third place and a spot in the promotion/ relegation playoff with Kashiwa Reysol. The team was not quite strong enough to win promotion at the first attempt, losing both legs of the playoff by the same 2-0 score line.

Nevertheless, the results in 2004, both on the pitch and in the stands, put Avispa back among the ranks of J2 challengers. Encouraged by the success, the team added a few more veteran players in 2005 and made a concerted bid to regain a spot in the top-flight division. This time, the Yellowjackets managed to maintain their form for a full season, and though they could not match the dominance of Kyoto Purple Sanga, they did claim the number two spot and with it, a ticket to promotion.

Unfortunately, Avispa has suffered the same fate as most other Kyushu clubs - enjoying enough support and financial backing to make occasional charges into J1, but not quite big enough to stay there. The team's second visit to the top-flight division was even more short-lived than the first. The veteran players who had provided the experience and poise needed to produce results in J2 lacked the physical energy, speed and sharpness to handle J1 opposition, and with each month that passed their advancing age seemed to drag the team down. Despite a fierce struggle in the final stretch, Avispa finished in 16th place, and then fell to Vissel Kobe in the promotion/relegation series. The sting of relegation caused significant damage to the squad, since it meant that most of the team's veterans - with nothing left to look forward to - either retired or moved on to the JFL and regional teams that were trying to build a future J.League club, and needing the guidance and experience that aging veterans can provide.

In 2007, coach Pierre Littbarski took over the coaching job, and made an effort to leverage his past experience in Australia to rebuild the club in a slightly different image. However, it soon became apparent that the physical athleticism which defines most top players in Australia's A-League was poorly suited to the style of play that most J.League teams adopt. Big physical specimens like Mark Rudan, Ufuk Talay and Joel Griffiths were unable to make the transition to a more technical and "tightly officiated" league and Avispa finished in seventh place in 2007. All three players were more notable for the number of disciplinary cards earned than for their contributions to team success. There were a few signs to suggest that the Australian contingent were beginning to adapt to the "J.League standard" as the 2008 season began, but eventually time ran out on players and coach alike. Littbarsky was fired at mid-season in 2008, and his hand-picked foreigners followed him out of the clubhouse door. The departure may have been unavoidable, but it left the team with no real direction, no leadership, and no real sense of purpose. Avispa tumbled to their lowest finish in history up to that point - 11th place in J2.

In 2009, Avispa went back to the drawing board and started rebuilding once more. To accelerate the process, they adopted a model that has been used on several occasions by J2 teams, to elevate themselves into the top-flight division without going through an extensive period of player development. The team continued to receive steady a influx of players from Kyushu-area high schools, but rather than take the time to cultivate a young core and build its financial base in the community, Avispa turned instead to the transfer market, and scooped up a number of older, but talented veterans who were nearing the end of their careers. Players like Makoto Tanaka, Kiyokazu Kudo, Tetsuya Okubo and Yutaka Takahashi made critical contributions to the team's success in 2010, while Gamba Osaka loanee Daiki Niwa was a welcome addition who has since returned to his Kansai team and won trophies galore, and made national team appearances. A few mid-season additions allowed the team to make a late run at the J2 leaders. Avispa were helped in part by the self-immolation of JEF United, who held the third promotion spot for most of the season but collapsed in the final stretch. Nevertheless, the Kyushu team's consistent performance over the course of the year carried them into third place. In 2011, Avispa bounded back into J1 after an absence of four years.

Once again, though. the team failed to hold onto their spot in the top-flight. In fact, Avispa's weak showing in 2011 emphasized the difficulties that the club is likely to face for the foreseeable future. While the Kyushu region has enough of a financial and organizational base to "deserve" at least one J1 team, none of the teams has been able to stay up, and establish themselves as the top representative of Kyushu football, for any length of time. Oita Trinita came the closest, but the effort to hold a J1 spot eventually exhausted team finances, and the collapse was even more spectacular than what happened to Avispa in 2006. For the next three seasons, the Yellowjackets remained deep in the lower reaches of J2, less competitive than they had ever been before.

Throughout the early 'teens, Avispa continued to attract a lot of local talent, and leverage their organizational ties to the J.League via its network of former players and coaches. This allowed the team to rebound after each collapse, and it may continue to be a source of resilience. However, Avispa have really not done a thorough job of developing ties to the community, or boosting attendances. On the contrary, their inability to build local support was exploited by Giravanz Kitakyushu, who established another J2 franchise just 20km to the north. This had side-effects on the Avispa budget.

By 2015 there were five teams established in the Northern Kyushu corridor from Nagasaki to Oita, making competition for talent, as well as for fans and their associated revenues, a fierce struggle for every one of them. The only way to succeed in these conditions is to climb into the top-flight and remain there long enough to win over fans who have not yet committed their loyalty to another club. Throughout the 2010s, Sagan Tosu seemed to do the best job on that particular note.

Fortunately for Fukuoka fans, the team did manage to use its historical contacts to attract another top-quality coach in 2015, in the form of 1998 National Team captain, Masami Ihara. The former Marinos icon had already enjoyed success as an assistant coach and youth coach in both club and National Team organizations, so he not only had a good grasp of what it takes to win; he also had the influence to attract a lot of players who were too old to continue playing regularly for J1 teams, but who wanted another shot at glory. He built a solid unit of well-drilled and opportunistic players, which conceded fewer goals than any other J2 team except the "Kings of 0-0", Kamatamare Sanuki (who finished 16th). Ihara led the team to a third-place finish in J2, and then won the post-season playoff against Cerezo Osaka in a thrilling match decided by a last-second stunner, to earn promotion in 2016.

Unfortunately, the level of competition was just a bit too much for Fukuoka, who finished dead last and managed only four wins over the entire season. Ihara did his best with the limited raw material at his disposal, but his failure to keep the team in J1 cost him his job. Self-inflicted wounds like this are hard for a small team to recover from. It took another four years (and a plunge all the way to 16th in the J2) before a new coaching staff could rebuild and create a competitive squad once more.

As the J.League's first quarter-century reached its close, the Yellowjackets made one more run toward the top-flight, by winning the J2 crown in 2020. But until they find a way to start filling stadium seats, or stumble on some other source of revenues, this stint in the first division could be a short one.

Avispa remains a team with good basic footballing fundamentals and a well-connected, ambitious front office. But they lack the scale or the raw talent to secure a permanent spot in the top tier. This is likely to remain the fate of a club that failed to claim the mantle of "Kyushu's Club" in the late 90s, when the chance was theirs. Avispa remains trapped by that failure, in an increasingly competitive regional football market.

Team Results for 1993-04

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1996 15 9   2   19 42 64 -22
1997 (1st) 17 3 0 0   13 11 27 -16
1997 (2nd) 15 3 0 1   12 18 31 -13
1998 (1st) 18 2 0 1   14 22 47 -25
1998 (2nd) 15 4 1 0   12 11 38 -27
1999 (1st) 11 4 2   0 9 23 30 -7
1999 (2nd) 15 3 1   1 10 18 29 -11
2000 (1st) 14 3 3   0 9 19 28 -9
2000 (2nd) 6 6 1   2 6 22 20 2
2001 (1st) 12 4 1   0 10 13 25 -12
2001 (2nd) 15 3 1   2 9 22 31 -9

Team Results for 2005-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 8 42 10 12 22 58 69 -11
2003 4 71 21 8 15 67 62 +5
2004 3 76 23 7 14 56 41 +15
2005 2 78 21 15 8 72 43 +29
2006 (J1) 16 27 5 12 17 32 56 -24
2007 7 73 22 7 19 77 61 16
2008 8 58 15 13 14 55 66 -11
2009 11 65 17 14 20 52 71 -19
2010 3 69 21 6 9 63 34 +29
2011 (J1) 17 22 6 4 24 34 75 -41
2012 18 41 9 14 19 53 68 -15
2013 14 56 15 11 16 47 54 -7
2014 16 50 13 11 18 52 60 -8
2015 3 82 24 10 8 63 37 +26
2016 (J1 1st) 18 11 2 5 10 11 25 -14
2016 (J1 2nd) 18 8 2 2 13 15 41 -26
2017 4 74 21 11 10 54 36 +18
2018 7 70 19 13 10 58 42 +16
2019 16 44 12 8 22 39 62 -23
2020 2 84 25 9 8 51 29 +22

*Note: Data prior to 2002 is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "golden goal" overtime.