Friday, 24 March 2017

 


The roots of Albirex Niigata are very deep. The club can trace its history to 1955, with the formation of the Niigata Eleven Soccer Club, which took part in many local and national competitions, such as the Emperor's Cup, over the years. In 1986, with the formation of the Northern Joetsu Regional League, the club became one of the top regional powers, taking the regional championship title on many occasions between 1986 and 1994. Though these strong regional roots were not sufficient to earn the club a spot in the J.League during its first phase of growth, they laid the groundwork for what would become a very competitive J1 organization.

Niigata is located on the northern Japan Sea coast - far from most of Japan's other major cities and in a rather isolated area. However, this has been an advantage to the team in some ways, since it does not have any local baseball franchise or other sports teams to compete against for fan support. As a result, Albirex have become one of the most well-supported teams in the league. Even when the team was still a member of the J2, it was already outdrawing many J1 clubs in terms of average attendance per match. After winning promotion to J1, numbers soared for Albirex in terms of attendance.

In 1994, following the creation of the J.League and the reorganisation of regional leagues, Niigata Eleven Soccer Club changed its name to Albireo Niigata Football Club. The name was taken from "Albi" (white) + "Reo" (king), which is an appropriate name for a team from one of the snowiest parts of the country. Albireo is also the name of the white snow goose that serves as the team mascot. In 1998, after being selected as one of the founding members of J2, the team changed its name to "Albirex", which rolls off the tongue a little easier than "Albireo".

By 2001, their strong local backing and relatively large crowds provided the team with enough money to begin picking up experienced players from the low end of the squads of J1 clubs, and to attract some top-quality Brazilians as well. Albirex put on a strong run for promotion in both 2001 and 2002, but twice they faded in the final stretch, and ended up falling just short of a promotion spot. Nevertheless, the team's strong performances and the added impact of a brand new stadium ("Big Swan" Stadium, built for the 2002 World Cup) earned the team enough cash to strengthen their roster even further. By 2003, this steady process of adding talented veterans improved the team to the point where they were able to capture the J2 championship, and promotion, in 2003.

Since then, Albirex have maintained their place J1, somewhere around the middle of the hierarchy, never falling low enough to be at significant risk of relegation, yet never performing well enough to claim any silverware. Tremendous fan support and steady finances allowed the team to develop into a consistent and competitive team, but player selection has never been particularly well-organized. Throughout the first decade of this century the team made a habit of picking up older journeymen players who have proven themselves on other teams, and thus can be relied upon to make a steady contribution, but who do not really give the team much potential for "growth". While the Mighty Swans have occasionally made brief forays towards the top of the table, they have never been able to sustain the momentum for an entire season. There are several possible reasons for this mediocrity, but none is entirely satisfying as an explanation, especially when one considers how much money the team has at its disposal.

For one thing, Albirex's youth program has not been very effective at producing top, J1-quality players. Niigata may have the money to buy themselves a J1-quality roster, but prior to 2005 or so, the Mighty Swans did not have a single player who came up through their own youth system and earned a regular starting position. Eventually, a few youngsters who joined Albirex out of high school, such as Kazuhisa Kawahara and Atomu Tanaka, worked their way into the lineup, but it was clear to many that the team needs to either improve their youth program, or at least develop some better scouting channels if they ever hope to move to the next level.

On the other hand, the Mighty Swans do have a few relationships that are rather unique for a J.League team. Thanks to a bit of good timing and a few contacts in Singapore, in 2003 Albirex was invited to field a team in the Singapore League. The creation of Albirex Niigata Singapore has not only allowed young players to get regular experience in competitive matches; it also won Albirex a fan following in Singapore. However, it is interesting to note that most of the Albirex Singapore alumni who are still in the J.League play for teams OTHER than Albirex. A notable exception is the aforementioned Atomu Tanaka (now -2016 - playing in Finland), who spent a few months in Singapore after being signed by Albirex out of high school.

The first season in J1 was a very impressive one for the Mighty Swans, not only in terms of their tremendous attendances (Albirex surpassed Urawa Reds to record the highest average home attendance of any club for the 2004 season), but also for their strong performance. Though the team finished 14th in the 1st stage, they got off to a very impressive start in the 2nd stage, and were in second place midway through the stage. Then disaster struck... in more ways than one.

The Niigata-Chuetsu Earthquake, in early October, devastated the region that Albirex calls home, and in addition to the emotional stress that this earthquake caused, it also forced the team to postpone one match, and play a second "home" match at a location hundreds of miles from Niigata. The stress and emotional turmoil took a toll on the team's performances, and they dropped the next four matches in a row, to finish the season in seventh place.

But in many ways, the Niigata-Chuetsu Earthquake was an event which solidified the team's grassroots support permanently. Years from now, this tragedy is likely to be seen as a key event in the team's development. Albirex was already drawing crowds of close to 40,000 on a regular basis. But the enthusiasm and support for the team was still restricted to a fairly small, though fanatically loyal fan base. The earthquake changed all that. In the immediate aftermath, team members traveled throughout the area, speaking to adoring crowds of schoolchildren as well as their previously disinterested parents and grandparents, providing entertainment and solace to displaced families, and carrying a message of hope and endurance through the hardship. This attitude of service, and a sincere desire to "pay back the local community" for its support, would be seen again and again over the years. The most memorable example, of course, was the response of Vegalta Sendai and a few other northeastern teams, following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. However, the template for this sort of community outreach, in times of disaster, was created by Albirex Niigata - something fans of the Mighty Swans have never forgotten.

By the end of the season, Albirex Niigata had been transformed from "just" a sports team, into a symbol of local Niigata pride. The players had grown, in the eyes of locals, into truly heroic characters, many of them recognised in the region as readily as any movie star. The bond between the team and its local supporters is stronger than blood, and it runs both ways. Albirex players were at the forefront of volunteer efforts to help displaced people, following the tragedy, and they dedicated their efforts time and again to the people affected by the 'quake. The local citizens did their best to repay the favour, with their support and attendance, giving Albirex a cash flow from gate receipts that most other clubs would envy.

Though the team continued to record some of the highest average attendance figures in the league, it failed to transform this into on-field success, never claiming a piece of silverware and never quite demonstrating that it deserves to be viewed as one of the "contenders". In addition to the aforementioned weaknesses in the youth system, Albirex has a management and coaching roster that seems to exude mediocrity. Most importantly, the Niigata bankroll has never been used efficiently. From time to time, Albirex signs some fairly impressive talent, but they seem to let players leave as soon as they become stars. Perhaps this reflects a conscious decision to try to develop talent from within, and if that is the case, it may eventually start to pay off. Up to now, however, talented players who come up through the Niigata ranks have ended up achieving their greatest successes for some other team.

For example, one thing that Albirex HAVE done well, over the years, is to scout high-quality players from overseas. Beginning with Fabio Dos Santos (Fabinho) in 2004-07, the team has repeatedly brought in young players who have blossomed into stars over fairly extensive J.League careers. The only problem has been that as soon as Albirex cultivates one player and makes them a star, they lose him to a rival club. Edmilson used his golden boot performance in 2007 to move to Urawa Reds, Pedro Junior ditched Niigata to join Gamba Osaka, and at the end of 2010 Marcio Richardes also followed the well-worn trail from Niigata to Urawa. Once again, this is hard to understand, since Niigata's revenue stream should be on a par with that of Gamba, even if it is slightly weaker than Urawa's. The next "big discovery" was Korean winger Cho Young-Chol, who seemed to be on the fast-track to stardom both in the league and with the Korean national team. However, as soon as he reached "star" status, Albirex allowed him to slip away... and not to some top-tier club, but to lowly Omiya Ardija.

The outflow has included many Japanese players as well. Gotoku Sakai came up through the Niigata youth system, and both of his brothers are also Albirex youth alums. But no sooner had he broken into the National team than Albirex let him jet off to Germany for a fee rumoured to be even less than the 350,000 Euros that Dortmund paid for Shinji Kagawa, Another NT prospect, Kengo Kawamata, made his big breakthrough in 2013, scoring 23 goals for the Mighty Swans. But just six months later he was off to Nagoya, apparently with little or no resistance on the part of Albirex management to keep him around.

Despite some of the most loyal and lavish support in the J.League, the Mighty Swans continue to leave fans feeling short-changed. The solid organization that Albirex has built SHOULD be enough to keep the team firmly entrenched in the J1, but it is hard to shake the feeling that they are squandering chances to make the next step up to true success. Until team management demonstrates a bit more initiative and ambition, as well as better efficiency in their use of cash flow, these geese are unlikely to fly to any real heights


 

Team Results for 1994-98 (Albireo Niigata)

Year Rank Pts W D L
1994 (Hokushinetsu Lg.) 4 13 4 1 4
1995 (Hokushinetsu Lg.) 3 22 7 1 1
1996 (Hokushinetsu Lg.) 1 25 8 1 0
1997 (Hokushinetsu Lg.) 1 27 9 0 0
1998 (JFL) 11 36 12 0 18

Team Results for 1999-04

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 4 58 16 4 2 14 46 40 +6
2000 (J2) 7 46 11 4 5 20 54 63 -9
2001 (J2) 4 78 22 4 4 14 79 47 +32

Team Results for 2005-present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 (J2) 3 82 23 13 8 75 47 +28
2003 (J2) 1 88 27 7 10 80 40 +40
2004 (J1-1st) 14 14 3 5 7 16 25 -9
2004 (J1-2nd) 7 23 7 2 6 31 33 -2
2005 12 42 11 9 14 47 62 -15
2006 14 42 12 6 16 46 65 -19
2007 6 51 15 6 13 48 47 +1
2008 13 42 11 9 14 32 46 +14
2009 8 50 13 11 10 42 31 +11
2010 9 49 12 13 9 48 45 +3
2011 14 39 10 9 15 38 46 -8
2012 15 40 10 10 14 29 34 -5
2013 7 55 17 4 13 48 42 +6
2014 12 44 12 8 14 30 36 -6
2015 (1st) 17 14 3 5 9 20 33 -13
2015 (2nd) 12 20 5 5 7 21 25 -4
2016 (1st) 13 18 2 4 7 19 25 -6
2016 (2nd) 16 12 4 0 13 14 24 -10

 *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.