Tuesday, 16 October 2018

 

The story of Ventforet Kofu, and its remarkable climb from weakly organized amateurs who served as the J2 doormat and laughing stock of the J.League, to Cinderella-like storybook heroes will occupy the annals of J.League history and folklore for decades. And though we still have no idea how the story will "end", Ventforet has already established the the model for a hard-working small-town team that stubbornly punches above its weight. The team's victory in the 2005 promotion-relegation series has already provided a legendary tale that is as amazing and uplifting as any Steven Speilberg action thriller. Even after the J.League's expansion to three divisions, Kofu is still the smallest town to host a J.League franchise, and also "boasts" (by a considerable margin) the smallest budget of any J1 team. As "valiant underdog" or "David & Goliath" stories go, you cant get any better than this one.

Ventforet Kofu spent the first three seasons of its existence in a purgatory of dismal on-field performance, dreadful finances and laughable levels of fan support. Those fans who did show up were a brave lot indeed, as the team remained dead last in the J2 league table for 30 consecutive months, setting records for most losses, worst goal difference, and lowest attendance ever for an official J.League match (351 sad supporters showed up for a match at Niirasaki Stadium, in 2001).

Ventforet Kofu got its start in 1965, when several former members of the Kofu High School football team formed a club team known as Kofu Soccer Club. The team entered the JSL second division, and registered a reasonably good performance over the years, gradually climbing into the first division of the former JFL. In 1995, the team name was changed to Ventforet Kofu, from the French for "windy forest". The team takes its name from a famous saying of the regional warlord Takeda Shingen, whose chose as his motto the characters which mean "wind, forest, fire, mountain". This was an abbreviation of a Chinese phrase taking from Sun Tsu's "The Art of War", describing the qualities possessed by the ideal warrior. Loosely translated it means "As elusive as the wind, as silent as the forest, as overwhelming as fire, as immovable as the mountain."

The choice of a famed 15th century warlord might be considered a brash and defiant statement. But then, one needs to remember that Takeda Shingen is best remembered for fighting an endless number of totally inconclusive battles against the most powerful foes of his time, creating lots of chaos and bloodshed, and yet never winning a single conclusive victory. He died of a lung ailment (possibly tuberculosis) on his way to the most important battle of his era, and following their subsequent defeat, his entire family was either forced to commit seppuku, or sold into slavery in the wilds of northern Hokkaido. True to this great legacy, Ventforet Kofu quickly became a paragon of valiant failure.

Indeed, the embarrassing performances of the team prior to 2002 earned Ventforet -- which did not have an official mascot at the time -- an unofficial fan mascot, in the so-called "baghead". In 2001, The Rising Sun News (the J.League's first online presence in English) decided that if a team did not have an official mascot , the "mascot" spot of its Team Data section would be filled with an unofficial mascot designed to symbolize the team's character (In addition to Ventforet, a "Yamabushi" figure was chosen to represent Montedio Yamagata and an "Awa Odori" dancer to serve as mascot for Tokushima Vortis). Considering Ventforet's embarassingly poor performance, what better choice of mascot than the "baghead" -- a Ventforet fan with a paper bag over their head to avoid the shame of being seen supporting the pathetically poor team. A picture of this "unofficial mascot" on the Rising Sun News' Ventforet Kofu team page was spotted by a group of local fans, and enjoyed the self-mocking irony so much, they actually began showing up at matches with paper bags over their heads, as shown below.


After winning just 20 matches in its first three years, and finishing dead last in the league every time, with a combined goal difference (over three seasons) of MINUS 166, Ventforet was on the brink of financial collapse. The city council of Kofu held a meeting to decide whether or not to bail out the team, and by a margin of just a single vote, agreed to offer financial support to the club, provided it could move to at least the middle of the league table within two years.

But in 2002, things began to change rapidly. After three years of paper bags, Ventforet finally started to show signs of becoming a . . . well . . . . a rather mediocre team. Picking up financial support from (of all places) a professional magician named "Princess Tenko", Ventforet began to display some magic on the football pitch as well. Though the team remained small and poorly funded, former NT assistant coach Takeshi Oki introduced a strategy that sought to use constant pressure and tireless ball pursuit to help neutralise the team's disadvantage in technical skill. The gritty determination of the players and rising levels of local support began to transform the tiny club into something of a real contender. Furthermore, Shimizu S-Pulse began farming out young prospects and borderline players to Kofu, in something of a "farm team" relationship, giving Ventforet the talent needed to make a run at some of the big clubs.

With their team suddenly looking respectable, fans took the paper bags off their heads, and began to offer Ventforet some of the most enthusiastic and vocal support in the J2. The small size of their home town limited the actual numbers, but few other teams could match the local fan clubs for their fanaticism and "noise ratio". In 2003 and 2004, Ventforet put on a strong run early in the season, based on the sheer athletic energy of its core players and the scoring contributions of one or two talented strikers (Marcelo "Baron" Polanczyk, Takafumi Ogura, "Bare" Spindler, Patric Oliveira, Davi do Nascimento and Cristiano have all filled the position of "designated scorer" at one time or another). Both times, Ventforet ultimately collapsed down the stretch to finish around the middle of the table, but the valiant effort, even in defeat, began to reflect very much the character of Kofu's departed warlord, Takeda Shingen.

The 2005 season began very much like the previous two. Ventforet's aggressive and tireless running allowed them to pile up some wins early in the season, and the scoring of Bare Spindler allowed the team to even capture some points from top opponents. As the year-end approached, the team still had an outside chance of claiming a promotion spot. The enthusiasm among both players and local fans was infectious, and the longer their hopes remained alive, the harder the players ran. With three matches remaining, though, it looked like their dream was about to die once again. Needing three points to keep their chances of claiming third-place alive, Ventforet found themselves one goal down to Consadole, at Sapporo Dome, and the clock was winding down towards the 90 minute mark.

But in true storybook fashion, the team claimed an equaliser just as the clock moved into extra time. Rushing against the clock, they put the ball back in play and remarkably scored the winner a few seconds later. The Cinderella story continued, and the enthusiasm was palpable. In the final match of the season, a victory over J2 champions Kyoto Purple Sanga clinched third place, and put Ventforet into a promotion-relegation series against Kashiwa Reysol. Once again, the combination of enthusiasm, tireless pressure and the potent scoring ability of Bare carried the underdogs to victory, and in heroic fashion, Ventforet earned promotion to the J1 in 2006.

Once the remarkable success of 2005 was in the history books, the team was forced to assume what seemed like an even more impossible task. Ventforet simply did not have a large enough budget to afford the talent that most J1 clubs take for granted. Indeed, the team's budget for 2006 -- about 1.5 billion yen -- was less than half that of the second smallest J1 team. Like the ill-fated Takeda family of the 15th century, Ventforet was forced to go into battle against the strongest warlords in the land with a vastly outnumbered army. Considering their situation, Ventforet was hard-pressed just to avoid relegation. But the never-say-die attitude of players and fans alike surprised a lot of people, and the team earned grudging respect from neutral fans and the mainstream press. Against the odds, the team managed to escape the drop in 2006, while the increasing their crowds and revenues from ticket receipts as well.

Unfortunately, that was as long as the Cinderella story could last. The 2007 season brought the result that everyone had anticipated even in 2006. Outmanned, though never outhustled, Ventforet fought an unsuccessful battle against relegation, and returned to the J2 in 2008. While they remain something of an underdog, even in the J2, the fighting spirit of Takeda Shingen certainly is alive in Yamanashi, and despite a weak start and a seventh-place finish in 2008, the team made a good start at reorganizing and laying the groundwork for another charge at promotion.

Though it still lacks any meaningful corporate support, by 2008 the team had attracted one of the strongest local followings in the J2. Indeed, relative to the overall population of the hometown area, the Wine-and-Blue are arguably a rival for Albirex or Reds as the best-supported club in Japan. This provided enough of a financial boost to allow Ventforet to acquire young talent, and steadily establish themselves as a legitimate promotion candidate. The departure of coach Oki, to take responsibility for relegation at the end of 2007, certainly set the team back. His replacement, 38-year-old Takayoshi Anma, lacked the experience needed to lead the team effectively, resulting in a seventh-place finish in 2008. Although they rebounded to challenge for promotion in 2009, the coach's shortcomings were clearly apparent in the final stretch run, and he stepped down at the end of the 2009 season.

In 2010, the revival continued, and now there was enough spare cash to fund the acquisition of even better players. Kofu picked up young Mike Havenaar - the Japanese-born son of former Nagoya goalkeeper and current coach Dido Havenaar - as well as a speedy Brazilian striker Paulinho, who had made his mark already with Kyoto Sanga. The team's fighting spirit and the influx of talent was more than enough to offset the shortcomings of interim coach Kazuo Uchida, and the Brave Warriors of Yamanashi earned another trip to the J1, with a second-place finish in 2011.

The 2011 season started off on a disappointing note, for reasons that would reverberate over the next few seasons. Satoru Sakuma, who had been hired by Mr Umino to run the club as General Manager, picked an old friend to serve as head coach, apparently influenced more by the relationship than by Toshiya Miura's resume. The club went into an immediate tailspin and by July, Miura was sacked. With no money in the budget to pay for a new, quality coach, Ventforet turned to Sakuma, who stepped in as head coach for the final few months of the season. He did a good job righting the ship, but the Wine and Blue were unable to avoid relegation.

Back in J2, Sakuma again turned to an old friend to serve as head coach. This time his selection -- Hiroshi Jofuku -- was much better. Although coach Jofuku's philosophy was extremely defensive in nature, it did produce solid results, and with a sudden burst of form, Kofu raced all the way to the J2 title. This time promotion did not bring a change of coach, and thus Ventforet was able to contest the 2013 season more-or-less unchanged. Jofuku brought in a lot of aging players who had been dropped by other J1 teams due to their age, but who still had the energy and fire needed to play the hard-working style that Ventforet is famous for. Veteran journeymen like Yukio Tsuchiya, Kohei Morita and Takuma Tsuda would perform valuable service for the club over the next few seasons. In both 2013 and 2014, Coach Jofuku and his "over-the-hill gang" managed to avoid relegation in spite of Kofu's miniscule budget and limited resources. Suddenly, even the mainstream press began to give Ventforet credit for their hard-battling ways, nicknaming them "Japan's Provincia" as an allusion to the small-town Italian teams that occasionally muscle their way into Serie A.

When Jofuku stepped down at the end ofthe 2014 season, Mr. Sakuma again turned to a former friend from his days at Omiya -- Yasuhiro Higuchi. As it turned out, Higuchi had far more in common with Miura than with Jofuku, and by July the General Manager had to step in again as an "interim coach", due to Kofu's lack of budget to replace the outgoing Higuchi. But this time, Ventforet had a bit more experience under its belt, and managed to avoid relegation for a third consecutive year.

Though it is still a small-town team with small-town finances and relatively conservative ambitions, Kofu has been gradually gaining strength the longer it remains in the top-flight. The team has far more resources and a much deeper roster than at any time in the past, but that still leaves them with the smallest budget in J1. In 2016, Coach Sakuma decided to remain at the coaching desk himself, even though it is surely a challenge for him to wear both the coaching and GM hats at the same time. The focus remains on just staying in the top-flight for another season.

Nevertheless, now that they have managed a bit of stability in the J1, Ventforet has become a place where both veterans in the final years of their career, and young prospects who hope for future glory, can demonstrate their valour as underdogs. Youngsters like Yoshifumi Kashiwa and Sho Sasaki (now starting for Sanfrecce) can use the experience as a launching pad for their careers, while older players like Yusuke Tanaka (joining this year from JEF United) can bask in the golden sunshine one last time.  Whenever the wind whispers through the forests of Yamanashi, one can hear echoes of noble deeds, dramatic battles, glory and heroism. As Ventforet fans await the start of another football season, perhaps they can be forgiven for wondering whether these tales of glory may be echoes of the region's future, and not only its historic past.


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 (1st) 12 20 6 2 9 12 22 -10
2015 (2nd) 14 17 4 5 8 14 21 -7
2016 (1st) 17 15 3 6 8 18 31 -13
2016 (2nd) 13 16 4 4 9 14 27 -13

*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.