Sunday, 20 October 2019

 


 The story of Tokyo Verdy is one of those dramas that could only happen in Japan, though some of the elements of the team's travails were rather "unJapanese". Greed and mismanagement turned the team from a dominant powerhouse into the whipping boy of the league, and despite a bold effort to try to rebuild itself, the team has earned a reputation for trying to relive past glories rather than really focusing on the future. As a result, the club has gone from dramatic success to abject failure, over the course of just two decades.

The team was founded by Yomiuri, the newspaper and media company that also owns the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, in 1969 (Hence the full official name: Tokyo Verdy 1969). Yomiuri Club was extremely successful in the JSL, winning a number of league titles and Emperor's Cup championships in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the end of the 1980s Yomiuri Club rivalled Nissan Motor FC for the status of most successful team in Japanese football. At the time the J.League was founded, Yomiuri Club boasted some of the top players in the country, including core members of the national team like Tetsuji Hashiratani, Kazu Miura and Ruy Ramos. With a strong collection of talent and the financial backing of Yomiuri, the team swept into the J.League with a roar. Verdy Kawasaki -- a deliberate misspelling of the Italian word for "green" to match the color of their uniforms -- captured the first two J.League championships, in 1993 and 1994, as well as three consecutive Nabisco (league) cups. By 1995, Verdy seemed to be almost synonyous with success.

But the facade of success was very thin, as would soon be revealed. Despite the J.League's objective of developing strong local franchises with ties to their home town community, Verdy (or rather, Yomiuri) wanted to set itself up as "Japan's team", much as the Yomiuri Giants are in baseball. The team used its influence to coerce broadcasters to carry its games as opposed to those of rival teams, and neglected its local fans in an effort to build a nationwide base. As the club soon discovered, football fans are a different breed from baseball fans. The local character and grassroots efforts of teams like Kashima Antlers, Yokohama Marinos and Flugels, Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse won them fanatically loyal followings. Although Verdy did succeed in attracting a huge number of "visitors" during the first few years, its base of true "fans" turned out to be very small. When the fad success of the J.League passed, the crowds evaporated, and Verdy's ticket sales plummetted faster than those of any other team.

Verdy faced other problems as well. Although the team spent lavishly on talent, it generally picked up mature players with strong reputations, high salaries and huge egos. As the league started to retrench, Verdy found itself with a lot of aging stars whose performances no longer matched their high salaries, and who seemed to want to party and preen for photographers more than play football. By 1996, the team was faltering under the weight of serious debt, yet failing to hold its own in the standings with teams like Antlers, S-Pulse and Marinos. Furthermore, the egos of the Yomiuri management set them in conflict with the League bureaucracy. The J.League wanted clubs to be free from the dictates of corporate boardrooms (a problem which always has, and continues to plague Japanese baseball). One of the rules they introduced was a ban on corporate logos or the use of corporate names in the team name. But as late as 1996, Verdy was still billing themselves on posters and in advertisements as "Yomiuri Verdy", openly flouting the regulations. Some other clubs had been trying to bend the rules as well, but none as blatantly as Verdy. By 1996, the J.League had had enough, and was threatening to fine the club for further violations. Clearly, the situation was dire.

In 1998 the collapse finally came. Verdy finished the second stage in 17th place out of 18 teams, and racked up astronomical losses. Not surprisingly, they received no sympathy from anyone. The club was forced to do a thorough housecleaning. All of the high-priced veterans were given their walking papers and the club started rebuilding around a group of rookies and young transfers from the JFL. At first, this seemed to work. In 1999, Verdy surprised many by performing quite well despite having no household names in the lineup. More importantly, the team returned to an exciting, aggressive style of football that was more appealing to fans.

But while the team seemed to be reforming on the outside, the situation beneath the surface was as rotten as ever. One of the most ill-advised moves of all came at the end of 1999. With ticket sales falling, and a truly grassroots-based team (Frontale) emerging as a rival for fans in Kawasaki, Verdy made the decision to move its "home town" to Tokyo, to try to attract more support, and distance itself from nearby Yokohama. The team applied to the J.League to change its home town from Kawasaki to Tokyo. In late 1999, the team won approval for its move, and at the end of the 2000 season the team changed its name from Verdy Kawasaki to "Tokyo Verdy 1969" (the 1969 refers to the date of the original team's founding, perhaps in an effort to recall "the glory years"). In 2001, Verdy moved to a new town, and took up residence at a magnificent new stadium in western Tokyo.

This proved to be an enormous mistake. FC Tokyo had already built a strong following in western Tokyo, so Verdy was not able to escape the problem of having a popular competitor right on its doorstep. On the contrary, the move alienated both former fans from Kawasaki and people who had already begun supporting FC Tokyo. To this day, FC Tokyo supporters jeer their local rivals with epiphets such as "pretender" and "fake", while carrying huge banners which proclaim "The REAL Tokyo FC". The situation was compounded by the impression that Verdy gave, of a team trying to "live in the past'. This was exacerbated by coach Yasutaro Matsuki's efforts to bring back "the old gang", who had been a part of the team in its championship years, rather than developing the talented youngsters who were starting to emerge from the team's youth program.

By the middle of 2001 season, Verdy were floundering in the depths of the J.League basement, and it was clear that the attempt to relive the past was failing. Coach Matsuki made a quick and ignominious exit, and the team spent the first few weeks of the second stage grasping desperately for another strategy. Fortunately, there was enough money left in the Verdy coffers to lure one last star to the team in hopes of a rescue. Brazilian bad-boy Edmundo "The Animal", who was in the bad graces of most clubs in his home country, needed a new start and a clean slate. The match seemed to fit perfectly.

With an entirely new team leader on the field, Verdy finally seemed to escape from its golden, yet tarnished past. In the final week of the 2001 season, Verdy managed a hairs-breadth escape from relegation. Once again, there were suggestions that the team had turned the corner, and was "on its way back". Coach Ossie Ardilles took over in 2003, and jettisoned many of the older players in favour of youngsters like Kazuki Hiramoto, Seitaro Tomizawa, Masayuki Yanagisawa and Hayuma Tanaka. But the front office was still addicted to "stardom". and this would eventually prove deadly. After Edmundo's contract expired in 2003, Verdy lacked the money to keep him, so they tried to achieve similar results with another veteran striker, Cameroon national team captain Patrick Mboma. But Mboma was past his prime and spend most of 2003 in the rehabilitation room. By 2004, the team was starting to produce decent results even without such stars, but it still was more a collection of individuals than a true "team. Ossie Ardilles may have allowed such problems to fester, due to his laid-back and quiet nature. What the team really needed was someone to whip them into shape.

2005 proved to be the watershed year for the team, which essentially replayed the team's entire history -- a journey from the pinnacle of success to the depths of defeat in a mere nine months. Verdy started the season by winning the Emperor's Cup, on New Year's Day. Though clearly an upset win, Verdy played very well and seemed to have captured a team spirit which had been lacking up to that point. They followed this up with a victory in the Xerox Super Cup -- the exhibition match which kicks off the season.

It was all downhill from there. Verdy plumbed depths rarely seen in Japan before, including a string of stunning losses -- 7-0, 7-1, 6-0 . . . essentially, the team unravelled in full view of the public, and they never were able to find their way back. By the end of 2005, the team that had dominated the League in its first three years was relegated to division 2.

The question that everyone was asking in early 2006 was "is this the bottom, or does Verdy still have farther to fall?". Following relegation, Verdy seemed to turn its back on its veterans. Players who had stuck with the team for as long as ten years were left to swing in the wind, as Verdy asked them to accept huge pay cuts or else look for another team. There were indications that the back office was still as conceited and self-deluding as ever, for example, asking nine-year veteran Takuya Yamada to just swallow an 80% pay cut without complaint. By the time the team sorted itself out, they had neither the talent nor the cohesion to claim promotion at the first try, and they finished in a disappointing seventh-place in 2006.

Even then, it was not clear that Verdy had reached he end of its dramatic decline. The Rising Sun News predicted that they would probably have difficulty regaining a J1 spot in a single season, but even we were surprised by the result. As we noted at the start of the 2007 season, "there are still six more places to fall before they hit "rock bottom". For a while, it looked like they were headed in that direction, and after two months their mid-table position temporarily threatened the job of head coach Ruy Ramos. But at last, Verdy seemed to find their feet. After signing a truckload of veterans widely derided as "The the team obviously had the talent needed to win the J2. It was only their mental and emotional fitness that was lacking. The key was clearly to understand that nothing can be taken for granted in sports, and that you must set out to EARN every victory and success you achieve. By the end of the 2007 season Verdy had rediscovered this intensity, and with a week remaining in the season, climbed at last into the top spot. A J2 title was beckoning -- their first league title since 1994 -- if they could just win the final match.

Once again, Verdy took too much for granted, and were overtaken by Consadole Sapporo to finish in second place. Most of the players consoled themselves that at least they had regained a spot in the J1. However, coach Ramos apparently realised that coaching a football team requires different talents from playing in one, and he may be lacking in at least some of these. Following the 2007 season he wisely moved into the back office, where his connections and sparkling personality can benefit the team, without his shortcomings detracting from their performances on the pitch.

As the team prepared to rejion the J1 following a two-year absence, fans of the Green Buzzards were hopeful that the worst was finally behind them. The team had a fairly large supply of young talent, as well as some seasoned veterans to lend experience. The contingent of Brazilians seemed to be the most formidable in years, and best of all, there were a number of other J1 teams who seemed to be in even worse shape. Surely Verdy could manage to get through the 2008 season, revive their reputation, and start to lay the groundwork for a return to competitiveness.

It was not to be. The incompetence and mismanagement in the Verdy front office still had not been addressed, and it often seemed as if the players faced as much resistance from their own organization as from their opponents on the pitch. The epitome of this malaise came in the final month of the 2008 season. Verdy were just narrowly above the drop zone, and needed a strong performance over the final two matches to secure their J1 position for another season. But with two matches still on the books, the team front office announced to the press that a long list of eleven players -- including several who would be starting in the upcoming matches -- would be dropped from the team at the end of the year. Surely there has never been a more stunning example of self-inflicted doom. The announcement destroyed team morale, and Verdy lost their next two contests, dropping back into the J2 on the final day of the season.

The story doesnt end there. So incensed were the fans by this example of management folly that they took over the stadium after the final match ended, and refused to leave. For six hours, a crowd of several hundred embittered supporters sat glumly in the terraces, shouting angry epiphets and demanding that the company president come out and listen to their greivances. It was not until after midnight that Ramos, coach Hashiratani and a few middle-managers from the club convinced them to go home. Thus, even before the 2009 season began, Verdy had a dark cloud of angst and animosity hanging over it, due to conflict with the very people who ensure the team's survival.

2009 may have started off poorly, but nobody realized the depths that the team would visit over the course of the season. At one point there was some faint hope that the team might be able to move into the chase for promotion, but at the very instant that fans were starting to develop hope, the team's largest stakeholder -- Nippon TV -- was selling out, and unless they could find a buyer the team would be dissolved. Once again, it seemed that the folks in the head office were deliberately sabotaging their own team, and the uproar that this created among the few still-loyal fans had many people predicting the team's demise.

Fortunately there was still a ray of hope. A group of former Verdy players, including people such as Ramos, Hashiratani, the Miura brothers and Takagi, banded together to form a consortium that bought out the majority ownership in the team, adopted a new corporate name, and thus cut all ties and all association with the Yomiuri corporation that had led the team through both success and failure. However, the Yomiuri group has never demonstrated the ability to be a "good loser", and they seem to have gone out of their way to put obstacles in the path of the new owners.

The 2010 season had to be viewed as the Green Buzzards' greatest crisis. The team hit rock bottom when the J.League finally took over management control, and forced the sale of assets as well as setting exacting goals for financial backing, stating that if not enough sponsors and investors were located, the team would lose its professional status. Fortunately, there was one element of the old team that still had a vestige of J1 quality - the youth teams and youth development organization. Throughout the 2010 season Verdy called upon the youngsters in this programme - some of them just 16 or 17 years old - to help carry them through a tough J2 campaign. Players like Hiroki Kawano, Takuya Wada, Yu Tomidokoro and the Takagi brothers - Toshiyuki and Yoshiaki - boosted the Tokyo Green up the table, and helped attract a financial backer and uniform sponsor in the form of Xebio - a sporting goods retail chain. This allowed Verdy to meet the J.League's targets and pulled the club back from the brink of collapse.

Unfortunately, finances have fallen to such a low ebb that Verdy is no longer able to hang on to its best young players. The team continued to slip downward until 2014, when contributions and capital participation by some of the team's former members gave it a solid enough base to begin the process of rebuilding. The Verdy Youth organization continues to develop a large number of players each year. There are nearly as many Verdy Youth alumni playing for J1 teams as there are graduates of other famous programmes such as Sanfrecce, Gamba and Cerezo. If the team can find a way to keep them in the fold for at least a few years, perhaps it can remain competitive on the pitch. The eighth place finish last year suggests that the tide may be turning, but the Green Buzzards must hope that the uncertainty and turmoil of the past is finally behind them.


Team Results for 1993-2002

Year Rank    Win    D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 2 12       6 29 21 8
1993 (2nd) 1 16       2 43 10 33
1994 (1st) 4 14       8 43 21 22
1994 (2nd) 1 17       5 48 26 22
1995 (1st) 2 16   1   9 46 36 10
1995 (2nd) 1 19   2   5 60 26 34
1996 7 19   0   11 68 42 26
1997 (1st) 16 2 2 0   12 16 27 -11
1997 (2nd) 12 4 2 0   10 22 38 -16
1998 (1st) 6 10 0 0   7 34 25 9
1998 (2nd) 17 3 0 0   14 13 28 -15
1999 (1st) 2 9 2   1 3 20 15 5
1999 (2nd) 10 4 2   1 8 23 28 -5
2000 (1st) 9 5 2   1 7 26 23 3
2000 (2nd) 10 5 0   3 7 20 21 -1
2001 (1st) 16 2 2   0 11 16 31 -15
2001 (2nd) 9 6 0   2 7 22 26 -4
2002 (1st) 12 2 3   1 9 15 24 -9
2002 (2nd) 4 6 2   2 5 26 19 +7

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 10 19 6 1 8 28 32 -4
2003 (2nd) 9 21 5 6 4 28 25 +3
2004 (1st) 9 19 5 4 6 21 23 -2
2004 (2nd) 9 20 6 2 7 22 23 -1
2005 (J1) 17 30 6 12 16 40 73 -33
2006 (J2) 7 71 21 8 19 69 75 -6
2007 (J2) 2 89 26 11 11 90 57 +33
2008 (J1) 17 37 10 7 17 38 50 -12
2009 (J2) 7 74 21 11 19 68 61 +7
2010  " 5 58 17 7 12 47 34 +13
2011  5 59 16 11 11 69 45 +24
2012 7 66 20 6 18 65 46 +19
2013 13 56 14 14 14 52 58 -6
2014 20 42 9 15 18 31 48 -17
2015 8 58 16 10 16 43 41 +2
2016 18 43 10 13 19 43 61 -18

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.