Wednesday, 22 May 2024

 

When people think of Japan, their first image is often of some samurai or geisha in a rustic medieval setting, a temple courtyard or meticulously manicured garden with cherry blossoms in full bloom, or some other image drawn from the country’s distant past. However, one iconic feature of Japan’s famed natural beauty is still as spectacular and as instantly recognizable as ever – the perfectly symmetrical slopes of Mt. Fuji. The towering peak is visible from as far away as Tokyo or Nagoya, and straddles two prefectures in the centre of the country, Shizuoka and Yamanashi, but the latter prefecture is arguably more strongly associated with the natural wonder. The windy mountain valleys that surround Fuji-san were considered one of the country’s greatest natural treasures even before ukiyoe (wood-block print) artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige immortalized the views in the late Edo period.

Although Yamanashi Prefecture plays a significant role in Japanese history, and it was particularly influential during the "Sengoku Jidai" (Warring States Period), for at least the past 150 years it has been a quiet backwater in Japan, despite its proximity to the Kanto area. Yamanashi is separated by high mountains from the rest of the country. It was economically neglected (perhaps deliberately, due to lingering animosity between locals and representatives of both the Shogunate and the Imperial Household) during the boom of 19th and 20th-century industrialization. Even today, there is very little industry in the prefecture, apart from some high tech R&D facilities on the eastern edge of the prefecture, nearer to Tokyo. The broad valley that contains the "city" of Kofu is largely agricultural. Tourism is the only sector that comes close to farming or forestry as a source of employment.

Not surprisingly, many young people flee to the bright lights and better job opportunities of Tokyo, just 90 minutes away by express train, soon after they leave school. This has contributed to a steady decline in population over the past few decades, leaving Yamanashi with one of the smallest – and oldest – populations of any prefecture in Japan. Even today, with the formation of a third division (J3), Kofu remains the smallest city in Japan to host a J.League team. The population of Kofu is around 180,000, and the entire valley surrounding the city (which is larger in area than Tokyo's 23 wards) has a population slightly over half a million. Moreover, Yamanashi ranks in the top ten among Japanese prefectures with the highest percentage of people over age 65.

These factors are not particularly helpful for those trying to develop a successful football franchise. Indeed, the only reason that Ventforet Kofu even exists is that the strong high school programs that were in place in the area prior to the birth of the J.League generated a pool of relatively talented players who formed an amateur club in 1965. Kofu Club was competitive enough to finish fourth in the JFL in 1998 - the year before the J2 was formed. Renaming itself Ventforet Kofu, the team was unable to find corporate sponsors, as most other J.League clubs had done. But since the J.League needed ten clubs to take part in the 1999 J2 season, they allowed Ventforet to incorporate by selling “shares” to each of the players and coaches. Thus, Ventforet was accepted as a founding J2 member though it maintained an essentially amateur status (players received a share of team revenues, rather than a salary). Ventforet remains the only amateur club ever to have been allowed to participate in the J.League.

As this historical information should indicate, Ventforet Kofu is not your typical J.League team. Throughout its history, the club has followed a unique path, outdoing all opposition and setting league records in a multitude of areas. Despite calling itself " the Pride of Yamanashi," most of these records are sources of embarrassment rather than pride. But the residents of this region have always managed to find sources of encouragement in even the smallest of accomplishments. The very name that Kofu Club chose as their new moniker, in 1998, harks back to the living icon of Yamanashi’s spectacular mediocrity.

Ventforet Kofu took its name from the French words for "wind” (vent) and “forest" (foret). This moniker is based on the first half of a famous saying that the 16th century warlord Takeda Shingen had emblazoned on his battle flags – a four-character epigram made up of the characters for "wind, forest, fire, mountain", Pronounced in Japanese as “Fu-rin Ka-zan”, this epigram originated as a Chinese phrase taken from Sun Tsu's famous book "The Art of War", in a section that describes the qualities possessed by the ideal warrior. Sun Tsu explains that an 8ideal warrior needs to embody these four properties. He should be "as elusive as the wind, as silent as the forest, as all-consuming as fire, and as immovable as a mountain."

Takeda Shingen is a widely revered character in Yamanashi, with enough historical importance enough to ensure that his name, and the “Fu-rin Ka-zan” motto, would be recognized by any schoolboy. Ventforet might have intended the choice of a famed 16th century warlord as a brash and defiant statement. But one needs to look at Takeda Shingen’s actual life and legacy, if one hopes to fully understand the proud but self-deprecating cynicism that pervades the citizens of Yamanashi. Lord Shingen is best remembered for fighting an endless number of totally inconclusive battles against the most powerful foes of his era, creating lots of chaos and bloodshed, and yet never winning a conclusive victory. He died of a lung ailment (possibly tuberculosis) on his way to the most important engagement of his battle plan – an intended march on Kyoto, the capital. When his son attempted the march a second time, the untested general committed strategic errors which resulted in the massacre of the famed Takeda cavalry. Nobunaga followed up this victory with a massive invasion of the Takeda family’s base, and then forced the entire family to commit seppuku, or be sold into slavery in the wilds of northern Hokkaido. In short, Shingen’s legacy is one of flamboyant but futile activity, followed by utter defeat and humiliation.

True to this legacy, Ventforet Kofu quickly became a paragon of valiant failure. Naturally, an amateur team made up of former schoolboys, and coached by an unpaid volunteer (Susumu Katsumata, a Kofu Club "Old Boy" who had earned his S-class coaching license while living in Germany) struggled to compete with its fully professional opposition. During its first three seasons in the J2, Ventforet set some of its most enduring J.League records. It registered an average goal difference of -1.4 goals a game in 2001 (a depressing -60 over a 44-game season) and set the all-time attendance record (low) of 260, in a game played at Niirasaki Stadium in 2001. The team won just 20 matches over its first three years, with a combined goal difference of MINUS 166! It was clear to club leaders and J.League officials alike that this situation could not continue.

At the end of the 2001 season, a meeting was held in Kofu City Hall, in which the League apparently insisted that the club either secure local government funds and corporate sponsors, or be disbanded. As it turned out, this was the event that changed everything for a tiny, unloved little amateur club.

It is difficult to fully appreciate the dynamics of Yamanashi's relationship with the rest of Japan unless you are willing to spend a few months studying Japanese history, or living in the prefecture. Suffice it to say that the locals have a large historical chip on their shoulders, as the descendants of a clan that was defeated, and then brutally subjugated by Japan’s medieval Shoguns. For nearly four centuries, citizens of Yamanashi have been subjected to scorn and mistreatment (both real and imagined) by government representatives, bureaucrats and other people from Tokyo (Edo). Consequently, most people raised in Yamanashi believe that loathsome "Tokaijin" (approx. translation: "city slickers") are the cause of every problem in their lives.

So naturally, locals didnt really care what the mainstream media and rival teams thought of the embarrassing performances of the team prior to 2002. On the contrary, stubborn pride earned Ventforet -- which did not have an official mascot at the time -- an unofficial fan mascot, in the so-called "Baghead". While fans have come to love their official mascots Van-kun and Foret-chan, who were created in the early 00s, the era of The Baghead illustrates the attitude that local fans took toward their team's "failure". 

In 2001, The Rising Sun News (the J.League's first online presence in English) posted an article in which the author noted that Ventforet Kofu should choose a mascot that matched the team's character -- a Ventforet fan with a paper bag over their head to avoid the shame of being seen supporting the poor team. The article was accompanied by a graphic showing such a "mascot" (a mockup of the old comedian known as "The Unknown Comic"). 

Since the article appeared on the Rising Sun News' Ventforet Kofu team page (one of the few sites on the Internet, at that time, to even mention the club), it was soon spotted by a group of local fans. Many responded swiftly and "with vinegar", as my old editor used to say, posting angry messages on the message boards that served that function, back in the days before Twitter. However, they soon discovered that the author was not some dumb Tokaijin but a local Yamanashi transplant and die-hard Ventforet fan! On reflection, the fan group found so much humour in the self-mocking irony that they adopted The Baghead as an unofficial mascot, and actually began showing up at matches with paper bags over their heads, as shown below.


 

When the J.League informed Ventforet Kofu that they were “too amateurish” to remain in the J2, and should either “shape up or be kicked out”, it was taken as a direct insult to the people of Yamanashi. Nothing could have galvanized an otherwise apathetic public better than the news that a bunch of nasty Tokaijin dissing the reputation of their hometown. The J.League dictated that unless they came up with more money and more organizational support, they would unilaterally shut down the local team.

Citizens of Yamanashi responded, en masse, with the predictable upraised middle digit. For football lovers in Kofu, things have never been the same.

The White Knight in this fairy tale was Kazuyuki Umino, a local businessman who was born in Kofu, and had close ties to many local politicians. Mr. Umino chipped in a large chunk of his own money, and then rode around the prefecture calling on small business owners, wealthy individuals, and the city representatives of every town and village in Yamanashi, asking if they were prepared to sit by and let a bunch of outsiders shut down what was already becoming a symbol of local pride. Kofu's original team logo was conceived in a red and blue colour scheme which may have drawn some inspiration from the Croatian national flag. However, Mr. Umino "re-branded" the colours, insisting that the reddish tint was "Wine-coloured" -- a blatant appeal to Yamanashi's wine industry which produces 70% of Japan's grape output. Umino, who remains the club president and leading creative force, had a clear talent for this sort of grassroots marketing and sloganeering.

The "Wine and Blue" logo could soon be seen plastered on bulding signs and flying from pennants in front of every supermarket, dry cleaners, magazine stand, convenience store, book store, shoe store, video store and candy store from Makioka to Minobu and from Ichinomiya to Ichikawadaimon. Even the team's initials were rebranded. The “VFK” letters, which appear on the team flag and are used in one of the fan base’s most popular chants, were now said to stand for "Valiant Fighting Knights" -- a reminder of the area's proud history under Takeda Shingen.

The dramatic events of 2002, and the marketing skills of Mr. Umino, turned a misfit bunch of last-place laggards into one of the best-supported teams in J2. But even with crowds soaring suddenly to around 10,000 per match, the team still struggled to make ends meet. Team management, under the leadership of Mr. Umino, left no opportunity unexplored in the effort to squeeze every penny of revenue from operations. One ploy that the team uses to boost gate revenues is to play "home" games against the leading Kanto-area powerhouses (particularly Urawa Reds and FC Tokyo) at Tokyo's National Stadium. While this effectively cedes the "home field advantage" to their rival, it has made a big difference in boosting income, as even a small-ish crowd of 25,000 Urawa Reds fans provides double the income that could be had at 17,000-seat Kose Stadium.

By the middle of the '00s, Kofu's resurgence had raised them to the upper end of the J2 table. In 2005, Ventforet scouts located a young Brazilian on the books of Omiya Ardija, whose powerful physique and brash style of play somehow didnt fit in at the team-oriented Omiya club. Jader Spindler -- aka "Bare" -- was convinced to make the move to Kofu, where he would have to play second-division football, but could be sure of starting every contest in front of adoring fans. This put the final ingredient into a mix that coach Takeshi Oki had been building for several years. The valiant fighting knights were ready to set domestic football on its ear. 


The story of Ventforet's charge into the J1, that season, is a fairy tale in its own right. As unlikely, uplifting and historic as the promotion/relegation series was, many people forget that Ventforet should never have even made it to the playoff. In the penultimate week of the season, they were playing Consadole Sapporo at the Sapporo Dome, needing a clear victory to remain in the chase, but with less than five minutes remaining they were a goal down, and facing almost certain elimination. The team’s ace striker, Bare, was out of action due to muscle spasms in his back, and their second-best Brazilian, Alair, had been subbed out midway through the second half.

Adversity? The Pride of Yamanashi don’t know what the word means. As the clock ticked towards 90:00, Tomoya Ishihara raced after a loose ball in the Consadole half, fed a pass to Taro Hasegawa breaking in on the right wing, and Hasegawa fired a screaming shot into the roof of the net to knot the score.

Racing after his own shot, he pulled the ball from the net and ignored the urge to celebrate, racing back to the center circle and yelling at the referee to make Consadole put the ball into play. Consadole kicked off, but now the Ventforet players could smell the aroma of destiny, hanging in the air like napalm in the morning breeze. The Wine-and-Blue brigade swarmed after the ball like a cloud of angry yellowjackets. Captain Ken Fujita somehow managed to wrest it away from a Sapporo player, and dashed down the sideline once more. Before any defenders could close in, he fired a low cross into the box, and Daisuke Sudo flung himself headlong at the ball, his forehead connecting with it at knee-height and driving it past the keeper!

But the show was not yet over. Once again Consadole put the ball into play, and once again the Ventforet players swarmed after it. This time, the Consadole keeper collected the long lead pass at the edge of his box before Sudo could catch up to it, and hurried to put it back into play. But he was undone by his own haste, sending his punt right into the back of one of his own defenders. Sudo pounced on the loose ball, and ... as the 40 or 50 travelling Ventforet supporters leapt gleefully up and down the away terraces like bullfrogs on amphetamines ... he tucked it into the empty goal mouth.

As unlikely as that 4-2 victory might have seemed, the fairy tale had barely finished its first chapter. The promotion/relegation playoff against Kashiwa Reysol would stretch the bounds of logic and credibility. It was one of those rare dramas which, perhaps one day, will be exhumed from the history books and turned into an epic film by Peter Jackson. It had all the elements that one might ask for in a classic adventure movie: Heroes and villains, scheming sidekicks and valiant battle-scene extras, a rollercoaster plot of advances and retreats, all culminating in a climactic moment of sudden and total chaos. Some day in the distant future, old men may sit about the fire and tell fantastic tales of the great deeds that were done on those cold, sleet-drenched battlefields in the early days of December 2005.

The two teams had only four days to rest and prepare for this contest, following the end of their respective regular seasons. The history of the tiny club from Yamanashi would play a significant role in some of the most dramatic events of the first leg. Having been ignored by the national sports media for its first seven years of existence, tiny Kose Sports Park was in no way prepared for the deluge of media attention that accompanied a J1 promotion playoff. The outpouring of local pride in Yamanashi caused Kose to sell out for the first time in its history despite the addition of about 2000 “temporary” seats on a construction site that was undergoing renovation to raise capacity to 17,000. In addition to the TV cameras, media vans, live feeds and makeshift press centres set up in the main stand, the area behind the back stand was packed with food stalls, souvenir stands, and dozens of other temporary structures with lights, heaters and assorted other electrical equipment jacked higglety-pigglety into a vastly overloaded power grid. As chaotic as the scene may have been, it was perhaps the most uplifting, electrifying and effusive event the region had ever seen.

Despite the chill wind and the threat of sleet or snow, spectators poured into the stadium early and kept each other warm by hopping about and singing the entire repertoire of Ventforet chants and cheers. As kickoff time approached, the night air was filled with a reverberating, wordless rendition of "Amazing Grace", which Kofu supporters traditionally sing as the players emerge from the locker room.

Barely ten minutes into the contest, Ventforet got its first taste of the adversity that they would face throughout the contest, when Reysol's Kisho Yano took what looked like an obvious belly-flop just above the top right corner of the penalty area, yet referee Joji Kashihara generously awarded a free kick. The kick was taken by midfielder Harutaka Ono, who curled it onto the head of Reysol's ace striker Reynaldo, heading it just underneath the crossbar to give the visitors the early lead.

But fans had seen plenty of adversity in the past, and with most of the match left to be played, their spirits were undimmed. As the roar of the crowd built higher and higher, Ventforet began to fight their way back into the contest. As the first half wore on, their aggressive pressure began to pay off. In the 25th minute, after one attempt at a breakaway counterattack was broken up and cleared to the right sideline, Ventforet defender Alair collected the ball about 35 metres out from goal, with plenty of room to set up and choose his target. He sent a looping cross to "Bare" Spindler, who leapt over his defender and headed the ball back in front of net for strike partner Taro Hasegawa. As Yuta Minami dashed off his line, Hasegawa had time for only a quick stab at the ball, just enough to flick it past Minami. As the ball bounded loose in front of an empty net, Kazuki Kuranuki swept in to bundle it home.

Reysol were momentarily taken aback by this reversal of fortune, and it took them nearly ten minutes to settle themselves and resume their own offensive buildup. It was not until the final minutes of the first half that Reysol’s superior technical skill pressed the run of play into the Ventforet end. But tireless physical effort and scrambling defense by the Kofu players held off the Sun-Kings until the break.

When the two teams re-emerged from the locker room and play resumed, Ventforet dragged out the one weapon that they used effectively all year long – a blitzkreig of ball pressure deep in the opponent's end. Though it left the defence undermanned, and created a few dangerous breakaways, the gamble paid off in the 48th minute, when four consecutive attempts by Reysol to clear the ball from their end were all intercepted by Ventforet players and rammed back into the attacking zone. After a frenetic scramble in front of net, Bare latched onto the ball and fired a blast into the nylon netting, sending the crowd into a rapture of celebration.

The remainder of the match can only be compared to trench warfare. With their backs to the wall, Reysol began to throw everything at their disposal into the quest for an equalizer. But despite near total control of possession, Kashiwa simply could not produce the equalizer. The Ventforet players may have been outclassed in terms of technical skill, but they simply would not stop running.

Throughout the second half the announcers commented that despite a great job of defending, the Ventforet players would surely run out of energy eventually. While theoretically true, the commentators failed to reckon with the sheer power of adrenaline. The Pride of Yamanashi blazed through the night with such intensity that the players could have kept it up until the new year dawned. The clock moved relentlessly towards the 90 minute mark and with no sign of a letdown in the defensive pressure, Reysol players began to panic. A minute of injury time was already on the clock, when suddenly . . .

. . . blackness closed over the roaring throng and the dark skies chose that very moment to unleash an icy blanket of sleet, frozen rain and stillborn snow. Somewhere in the night I could swear I heard the voice of Vicki Lawrence, singing . . .

That's the night that the lights went out in Kofu
Thats the night that they hung an innocent man

Somewhere in the sparsely populated fields surrounding Kose Stadium, a circuit-breaker had finally given way, strained to the breaking point by the unprecedented throngs of food vendors, hawkers, broadcast vans and miles of tangled electrical cordage. The entire neighborhood surrounding Kose Sports Stadium was plunged into darkness, and as the crowd howled in confusion and consternation, the two teams were forced to retreat to their respective locker rooms, unable to play the match to its conclusion.

It took over a half hour for emergency response crews from TEPCO to restore power, and get the floodlights back. By that time, the pitch was icy slick, and fans chilled to the marrow by the sudden downpour of sleet and freezing rain. To the amazement of anyone who had been watching the clock tick past the 91 minute mark before the lights went out, the stadium announcers informed the crowd that the game would resume at “90:00”, with a full four minutes of extra time.

But the gods of fate had already taken control of events. No blackout. No officiating blunders. Not even an icy cascade from the heavens was going to snuff out the warm glow that had been ignited in the hearts of Ventforet fans. When the final whistle sounded and the match officially concluded (with the game clock reading 131' 24"), a great wave of exultation, defiance, and long-repressed pride rolled like thunder through the frigid air. Ventforet Kofu had emerged from the dark cloud battle, and were still standing.

There was still another act to the drama, and as they made their way home through the wintry fields the the good folks of Yamanashi had no way of knowing whether they could preserve the narrow advantage claimed on that cold evening. But for those who stuck with Ventforet through it all – through the lean years when the team was the laughing stock of the J.League, and fans showed up at matches with paper bags over their heads in self-mocking jest; through the financial crisis, when the team seemed on the verge of dissolution; through all those travails and tribulation – nothing could dispel the warm glow that filled their hearts. After 131 minutes of anxiousness and adversity, Ventforet Kofu were the last team standing upon the snow-swept field.

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The hand of fate had written, and having writ, moved on. The next 90 minutes of football would simply confirm what everyone in Yamanashi already knew. The sun had fallen into the cold darkness beneath the December horizon, and as brilliantly glittering stars emerge like diamonds in the black velvet night, a brash young wind was rumbling through the forests of Yamanashi, down the mountainsides and across the broad plain. Just three days later, tidings from the east would tell of the heroic deeds and glorious victory of that Wine-and-Blue army, ushering in a new era for football fans throughout Japan.

The second leg of that historic promotion/relegation series would complete the transformation, for Ventforet, from a nationwide joke to a valiant underdog. This was not just a simple defeat. It was a rout. A massacre. A humbling blow to another proud franchise. And while there can be no doubt that Reysol deserved to be relegated in 2005, the sheer improbability of Ventforet’s triumph on that December afternoon is hard to overstate. The first leg was a nail-biting, hard-fought affair. But the second leg was a romp. An explosion of intensity, effort and emotion which -- like the powerful wind mentioned in their moniker -- swept away all resistance.

From the outset, it was clear what Ventforet intended to do. A team with a solid defence, and a certain amount of technical skill might have approached the away leg cautiously, knowing that a draw would be good enough to win them the prize. But as coach Takeshi Oki surely must have told them before the match, this was never the time to play for a 0-0 draw. As coach Oki was fond of noting in that era, Ventforet were not particularly good at defending, so regardless of the situation or score line, offense was the only consideration. In football, as in battle, when you are outnumbered and outgunned, there is only one strategy that has any chance of success -- Attack!

And attack they did. Relentlessly. Remorselessly. Ruthlessly. From the opening whistle to the final gasp, Ventforet Kofu attacked the ball, chasing it from one end of the pitch to another. Throwing themselves forward into attack, in numbers, again and again and again. This blitzkreig of pressure allowed Ventforet to collect the clearance passes again and again, not only ensuring that Reysol's scoring opportunities were few, but also producing chances to score themselves. If Reysol had managed to break through this swarm of pressure in the early minutes, it might have been a very different game indeed. But Kofu knew full well that they were taking a calculated risk, and as good fortune would have it, the gamble paid off.

Ten minutes into the contest, Kofu pushed the ball deep into the Reysol zone, and though defenders cleared it from their penalty area three times, each time a Ventforet player was the first to reach the loose ball, ramming it back into the box once more. On the third attempt, Ken Fujita broke down the right sideline to take the pass from midfield, and he had enough space to locate the powerful form of Bare, posting up about eight meters out from goal. Bare chested the ball down, then flicked it towards goal, bulled his way past his defender and fired into the back of the net.

Now the pressure on Reysol was even greater than before. Only three clear goals could rescue them from relegation, and though there was plenty of time left in the match, they must have known that their backs were to the wall. To their credit, Reysol went to work right away, throwing players forward in numbers to improve their chances. If Kofu had been content to defend their lead, it is quite possible that Reysol could have fought their way back.

But coach Oki's playbook didnt include the word "defend". While this cost Ventforet some matches over the course of the 2005 season, under the conditions the team faced that December afternoon, relentless attacking pressure was exactly the right ticket.

Reysol never got a chance to settle down, work the ball around and regain their composure and confidence. Wherever the ball went on the pitch, there were two or three blue-shirted players in hot pursuit. Reysol had a slight edge in possession for the space of about 15 minutes, but they were constantly under pressure, and faced with the threat of a quick Kofu counter. The Sun-Kings were crippled warriors, pinned down and merely awaiting the final killing blow.

In the 27th minute the ferocious ball press succeeded in forcing a poor pass at midfield and Taro Hasegawa dashed onto the ball, sprinted into the clear, and passed to Katsuya Ishihara as he cut for goal from the top right corner of the box. Ishihara was in full sprint, and the final two Reysol defenders were both flatfooted. As he raced towards them, Ishihara managed to squeeze the ball between them before running headlong into a melee of bodies.

To be fair, it was a 50:50 call. The Reysol players could claim that they were there first, and that Ishihara caused the collision. But since the ball made it through without a Reysol touch, the referee, Mr. Okada, gave the benefit of the doubt to Ishihara, and pointed at the spot. Bare drilled his PK and Ventforet had a 2-0 lead.

Reysol controlled the tempo for the remainder of the first half, but the Ventforet players continued to run tirelessly, and the constant harassing pressure prevented the home team from creating many good shots. Ventforet maintained their 4-1 aggregate lead at half time, and the rising tide of confidence carried them into the locker room with the air of nobles marching to a coronation.

When the second half began, Reysol found themselves under more pressure than ever. Only by scoring three unanswered goals could they keep hope alive, and they would need four (including overtime) in order to claim victory. Having recharged their batteries at half-time, the Kofu players were once again running at full tilt, and seemed determined to keep as much pressure on Reysol as they could manage.

Four minutes into the second half, tiny Taro Hasegawa made the play that would kill off the final vestiges of hope. After collaborating with Fujita and Kazuki Kuranuki to break up a Reysol passing exchange, Hasegawa took off up the right sideline, and as the ball arrived from Fujita, he sucked in some adrenaline and accelerated further. Defender Mitsuru Nagata knew he was beaten and resorted to a very clumsy "professional" foul – so clumsy, in fact, that Nagata (who already had one yellow card) seemed to realise that he was finished. He collected the ball and dribbled away upfield even as Mr. Okada blew repeatedly on his whistle. Eventually, Nagata kicked the ball away and stalked towards the dressing room, not even waiting for Mr. Okada to brandish a red card at him.

The sending-off did give Reysol a bit of a boost, awakening their pride and stimulating them to greater efforts. Three minutes after Nagata's sending off, Reysol finally managed to put together a sequence of passes inside the Ventforet box, and the last player in the line, Reynaldo, drove the ball into the roof of the Kofu net. With only two goals separating them from level terms, there was a brief flicker of hope among the boisterous crowd. The sun was sinking low on the horizon, casting the stadium in a golden glow. Perhaps the Sun-Kings could still win the day?

Those hopes lasted less than 60 seconds. Ventforet shifted to a higher gear and roared off into the sunset, leaving Reysol in the dust. Once again it was Bare who was on the end of the pell-mell dash towards goal. As he neared the right post, he fired a thunderbolt into the top right corner that nicked the post on its way through, and left the entire framework shuddering with the impact. The sun had fallen behind the horizon and the entire sky seemed to be aflame. In the reddening glare, Bare danced in celebration and the travelling fans shook the terraces with boot-stomping cheers. The tremors carried across the country, as with 38 minutes still on the clock, sportswriters nationwide began typing out Reysol's obituary.

But even with an untouchable lead, Ventforet never altered pace. Fifteen minutes later, a powerful drive by Fujita forced Yuta Minami to make a diving block, and the ball spilled right to Bare for his fourth goal. A minute later, he struck again for his fifth of the match. With time running down, Reysol finally got a consolation goal from Yuji Unozawa, but this only served to provoke another surge of attacking pressure from Kofu, and with three minutes left on the clock, Bare completed his second hat trick of the afternoon. Six goals in 90 minutes, to set a J.League record. The sun fled from the scene, leaving close to 15,000 Kashiwa fans shivering in the chilly darkness, while at the far end of the pitch the Kofu supporters laughed, wept, danced and embraced in the heady glow of victory.

Bare topped off his remarkable performance with perhaps the most emotional postgame interview ever filmed. The huge Brazilian simply could not control his emotions, sobbing uncontrollably as he poured out his feelings in a deluge of staccato Portuguese. The translator was helpless to get in a single word, to stem the cascade of impassioned blubbering, or to convey it in Japanese. Not that it mattered; everyone understood exactly what the big man was trying to say.

The brave lads of Kofu had emptied their hearts upon the pitch, and when it was over, the emotion overwhelmed them all, leaving not a dry eye in sight. This was not just the victory of one player, or even of eleven. This was a victory for the whole of Yamanashi, and one which had been built upon years of struggle and disappointment. It was a victory founded on teamwork, unflinching determination, and tireless effort.

For despite the lop-sided score line, even in their finest hour, it was always clear that Ventforet were the underdogs, and Reysol the more skillful and talented side. Kofu emerged victorious only through their superior effort, heart and hustle. The searing emotion of that legendary "Bare interview" showed the entire country the sense of community and camaraderie that unites members of the Ventforet "family" to this day


Following their dramatic advance to the top-flight in the 2006 season, Ventforet has bounced back and forth between J1 and J2. The team recorded five consecutive seasons in J1 from 2013-17, but despite reaching the promotion playoffs several times, they have fallen narrowly short of promotion in recent attempts to rejoin the top flight. The financial constraints faced by a small-town team continue to be a concern. The limited personnel budget not only limits the sort of acquisitions the team can make; it also ensures that any player who achieves any real success will move on to a bigger club as soon as they get the offer. Bare showed remarkable loyalty to the club in staying for the 2006 season, but in 2007 he was lured away by Gamba Osaka. The same trend continued in subsequent years.

Kofu's sharp-eyed scouts made some clever acquisitions over the years, often signing players who were underperforming elsewhere, and helping them to launch or revive their careers. While this has brought a number of well-known players to Yamanashi, they were either aging veterans at the close of their career (as was the case for Takafumi Ogura, Teruyoshi Ito, Daisuke Ichikawa and Fernandinho) or players who had fallen from grace with their former clubs, and needed a new start (such as Mike Havenaar, Davi do Nascimento, Atsushi Katagiri, Paulinho and Peter Utaka). Once they regained their form and fame, each one moved on to a bigger club and a larger paycheck.

You can also see the impact by looking at players who started their careers in Kofu. Even when a local boy achieves success, nobody is surprised or overly annoyed when they move to a bigger club. Niirasaki High School graduate and former Ventforet Youth midfielder Yoshifumi Kashiwa is a good example. After starting as a 19-year-old rookie at Kofu, joined Sanfrecce Hiroshima in March 2014, along with two other Ventforet products Sho Sasaki and Sho Inagaki. Junya Ito, of National Team fame, also started his career in Kofu, but the team simply did not have the finances to keep him around. An entire 15-man squad can be created using only current J1 or Europe-based players who started thgeir careers in Kofu, but left as soon as another team noticed them.

In recent years, Ventforet has been trying to capitalise on its status as a tiny club from a rural area -- or at least make it less of a handicap -- by launching another one of President Umino's clever marketing campaigns. The team began comparing itself to the small clubs that add flair to Seria A from year to year – such as Cagliari, Palermo or Cesena – using the slogan "Spirito Proviciale". The idea is inspirational, but it does little to diminish the difficulties faced by such a small team.

On top of all the other financial constraints, Kofu also generates relatively meagre revenues from home matches. Though Kofu is just 90 minutes by train from Tokyo, it is not easily accessible from the west. Teams from Western Japan have to either travel the entire distance by bus (almost six hours from Osaka or Kobe), or go to Tokyo first by Shinkansen, then turn back to the West to reach Kofu by bus or train. Naturally, this limits the number of away fans at games against teams from Kansai or Western Japan. Even for locals, the trip to Kose Stadium is far from convenient. There is no nearby train station, so most must travel by car or shuttle bus.

There is one positive side effect to the team's rural isolation. A recent survey by the J.League asked fans of various teams questions about their participation with the local team. Among other things, the survey found that Ventforet had the highest percentage of fans who attended matches in family groups, as well as a high ratio of fans travelling to the stadium with three or more friends. The crowds at Kose Stadium have developed a strong sense of "family." Indeed, the locals even have nicknames for various areas of the stands, characterizing the most common demographic. In addition to the “Ultra” section, behind goal, the home corner of the back stands is dubbed the "Adaruto" (adult) section, where forty- and fifty-somethings tend to congregate, while the area near midfield, close to the pitch is dubbed the "Kazoku Zone" (family zone).

Some J.League clubs have established a relatively youthful demographic, but at Kose you will find just as many toddlers and retired seniors as high school students or young singles. The sense of community is infectious, and for those who love the atmosphere of a football stadium, there are few places in Japan that can match Kose for the combination of scenic beauty, friendly camaraderie and emotional energy. The entire J.League benefits from the "Spirito Provinciale" provided by Ventforet, and other small-town clubs across the country. .


Team Results for 1999-2001

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 10 4 1 4 27 32 85 -53
2000 11 5 0 3 32 31 84 -53
2001 12 7 1 2 34 38 98 -60

Team Results for 2002-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 7 58 16 10 18 51 55 -4
2003 5 69 19 12 13 58 46 +12
2004 7 58 15 13 16 51 46 +5
2005 3 69 19 12 13 78 64 +14
2006 (J1) 15 42 12 6 16 42 64 -22
2007 (J1) 17 27 7 6 21 33 65 -32
2008 7 59 15 14 13 56 47 +9
2009 4 97 28 13 10 76 46 +30
2010 2 70 19 13 4 71 40 +31
2011 (J1) 16 33 9 6 19 42 63 -21
2012  1 88 24 14 4 63 35 +28
2013 (J1) 15 37 8 13 13 30 41 -11
2014 (J1) 13 41 9 14 11 27 31 -4
2015 (J1 1st) 12 20 6 2 9 12 22 -10
2015 (J1 2nd) 14 17 4 5 8 14 21 -7
2016 (J1 1st) 17 15 3 6 8 18 31 -13
2016 (J1 2nd) 13 16 4 4 9 14 27 -13
2017 (J1) 16 32 7 11 16 23 39 -16
2018 9 59 16 11 15 56 46 +10
2019 5 71 20 11 11 64 40 +24
2020 4 65 16 17 9 50 41 +9
2021 3 80 23 11 8 65 38 +9
2022 18 48 11 15 16 47 54 -7

*Note: Data for pre-2005 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.