Monday, 25 January 2021

Consadole Sapporo, located in Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan, was the last team to join J1 via promotion from the JFL, entering at the start of the 1998 season. When relegation was introduced at the end of that season, Sapporo was relegated to the second division (J2), where it languished for two years before winning promotion back to J1 at the end of the 2000 season. But Consadole was never able to play on an even keel, and after one year of reasonably strong performances, they were relegated for a second time in 2002. As the team put itself back together to prepare for a third bid at promotion, it seemed like Consadole had gone through a great deal in just a short period of time. Actually, though, the club was formed before any other professional football organization that is currently active in Japan. It does not have the same unbroken history of participation in domestic leagues enjoyed by Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which is officially accorded the status of "oldest professional club in Japan", but then, that seems to be in keeping with the inconsistent nature of the team that persists, even today.

Consadole Sapporo can trace its roots back to the Toshiba corporate soccer club, which was established way back in 1935. The club took part in several pre-war tournaments, but was disbanded between 1940 and 1949. Until the mid-1970s, it was simply a company club which played against other corporate teams in a loosely-organized after-work sports league, but it took part in no national competitions. Then, in 1976, Toshiba entered the national regional football league, and won promotion to the JSL second division just a year later. Building on that success, it won the championship of that league in 1979. In 1988, after again winning the JSL Division 2 championship, the team was promoted to the first division, where it took part in the simultaneous creation of the J.League and JFL, in 1993. 

To meet the requirements for J.League entry, the team incorporated as the Hokkaido Football Club in 1996, taking the name "Consadole Sapporo". The name is one of those strange concoctions so common in the J.League, which sounds so far-fetched that it surely must be a joke . . . but turns out to be absolutely true. People who were born in Hokkaido are often referred to as "Dosanko" -- literally "children born in the "Do". Most of Japan's prefectures bear the suffix "ken" (Prefecture), or "fu" (Urban Prefecture). Hokkai-do is the exception -- the suffix "do" referring to a rural district. Thus, "Dosanko" means something along the lines of "hillbilly", though people from the prefecture wear it proudly. In creating a name for their football team, fans simply took the syllables in do-sa-n-ko and reversed them to read "ko-n-sa-do", and then added the Spanish exclamation "Ole" to give it additional emphasis.  Consadole!

Two years after the name change, Consadole won the JFL title and advanced to the J.League. It adopted a mascot and team emblem based on the Blakiston's Fish Owl (also known as the "Snow Owl"), the largest owl in Japan and a very well-known inhabitant of Hokkaido. Consadole's first trip to the J.League top division was quite a disappointment. The team was still quite young, organisationally-speaking, and did not attract enough fans to avoid severe financial losses. In an ill-considered attempt to drum up support, Sapporo signed Diego Maradona's younger brother, Hugo, who may have had the Maradona name and face, but clearly did not take after his brother in terms of playing ability. After crashing out of the top division in 1998, Sapporo had a discouraging year in 1999, and looked to be on the road to the cellar of the second division.

The credit for turning the team around in 2000 has to be awarded mainly to Takeshi Okada, the former national team coach who resigned after Japan's poor performance in the 1998 World Cup. As is discussed elsewhere on this site, Okada is a very talented coach who happened to get the wrong job at the wrong time in his career. Many wrote him off after the World Cup, but the Hokkaido football club decided to give him a chance to redeem his own reputation and to restore the team's fortunes. Okada's aggressive pressing style and ability to develop young players carried Sapporo to the top of J2 in 2000.

Following the team's recovery and return to the top-flight division, however, the lack of cash and player talent made it difficult for even Okada to maintain a winning record. The team floundered in 2001, finishing in the lower half of the table. Okada stepped down at the end of the 2001 season, perhaps partly due to exhaustion as he desperately tried to achieve positive results with an under-strength team.

Prior to the 2002 season, the team again conducted a major housecleaning. Tetsuji Hashiratani, a former national team defender and team captain, took over the coaching reins, but he faced the same thankless task that confronted Okada. After just seven matches, Hashiratani was sent packing, having won only a single match. The downward spiral turned into a free-fall. In 2003, Consadole slipped to a depressing ninth-place finish, but they still had not plumbed the depths of despair. The team conducted a complete sell-off of talent at the end of 2003, as new management took over and the team began rebuilding virtually from scratch. Unfortunately, this left the team looking like a bunch of scruffy schoolboys (which is essentially what they were), and they finished dead last in 2004.

Even so, Consadole remained one of the better-supported teams in J2, and the ticket revenues remained high through thick and through thin. Bit by bit, this steady cash flow allowed Consadole to acquire talented players, including local boys like ex-Antlers Junji Nishizawa and Tomohiko Ikehata, and goalkeeper Tetsuya Abe. By the mid-00s the team was experiencing another renaissance, and Consadole began climbing through the table in 2005 and 2006. The addition of a star scorer at the start of the 2007 season -- Davi do Nascimento -- finally put them over the top, and the Snow Owls won their third J2 title while securing a return to J1 in 2008.

But the success was short-lived. As soon as the 2008 season started it became painfully clear that Consadole was essentially just a one-man team. Davi's scoring prowess was enough to carry the team against J2 opposition, but in J1 he was quickly identified as the main focus of opposing defences, and there was not enough support from the other players to win matches against top-flight competition. Consadole stumbled into the cellar and by mid-season it was already obvious that they faced another sojourn in J2. Naturally Davi attracted strong bids from other J1 teams, and he left Sapporo at the end of the 2008 season.

Though they continued to show a knack for picking up Brazilian strikers who can succeed in Japan, they seem to lose these players as soon as they develop. Like Emerson, Will and Davi before him, Danilson jumped ship at the first offer from a J1 team. A more important problem is that the Consadole team concept does not seem to be well suited to claiming, and holding, a spot in the J1. The arrival of coach Nobuhiro Ishizaki -- who rebuilt Reysol after their first relegation -- was a step in the right direction. The team was at the end of an era and needed to start over and try to improve the underlying competitiveness of the core (ie: Japanese) players if they were to have any chance of returning to, and remaining in J1. If anyone had the experience and temperament do this successfully, it would be Ishizaki.

Sure enough, Consadole managed to make the jump in 2011, finishing third and returning to the top-flight after an absence of three years. But promotion would prove to be a poisoned chalice for an aging group of players whose experience alone was the basis for their promotion. Unable to cope with the higher level of competition, the team was out of contention by late spring and the remainder of the season was just a long and painful process of beating the long-dead horse. Consadole finished with only four wins, and a goal difference that tied the unenviable record of minus 63 set by Ventforet Kofu, in 2001.

When Ishizaki stepped down in 2012, Consadole was at a crossroads.  As early as 2010, those who follow the J.League closely were predicting that Sapporo would need to build support, cultivate young players and improve the financial structure if they hoped to return to the top division any time soon. Instead, they were still mainly focused on veteran talent, picked up after they were already too old to get regular starting time on a J1 team. This has brought some well-known players to the club, and given fans a chance to see the likes of Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and others. But as pleasing as this may be to star-worshipping fans, it was not a strategy that promised any change in the team's second-tier condition.

There followed a period of uncertainty, with the team languishing at midtable of the J2 while the coaching situation changed every 12 to 18 months. Yet a number of younger players were emerging as solid contributors, and the team's finances were improving slowly. In what may seem like an empty symbolic gesture, the team rebranded itself under the name "HOKKAIDO Consadole Sapporo", adding the name of the prefecture to their moniker. Whether this was a factor in boosting attendances, or whether it just reflected the presence of stars like Ono and Inamoto, no one can say for certain. But crowds did improve, and this allowed Consadole to sign solid contributors like Ken Tokurza, Ryota Hayasaka, Akito Fukumori, Takahiro Masukawa and Naoya Kikuchi. Though they were all nearing the end of their careers, these veterans helped coach Shuhei Yomoda guide the team to the J2 title in 2016.

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Snow Owls needed the sort of stability and continuity that could only come from an experienced coaching staff and a long-term plan for team development. Without better organization and a consistent team philosophy, it appeared that the team was headed straight back to the second tier.  Fortunately, former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Urawa Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic had been fired by Urawa in late 2016, and after receiving assurances of contract stability and full control over personnel, he stepped in as head coach just before the 2017 season started.

Things got off to a rocky start, with Consadole losing three of their first five matches. It took a while for Petrovic to identify players who could fit into his preferred 3-6-1 formation, and for the players to learn their positions and roles. But as the season progressed, the Snow Owls began to gradually climb the table. Petrovic started to righ in the changes right away, picking up former Coventry, Wolverhampton and Cardiff striker Jay Bothroyd from Jubilo Iwata before the season started, and signing Thai international star Chanathip Songkran midway through the campaign. Younger players like Daiki Suga, Kazuki Fukai and Kosuke Shirai developed quickly under Petrovic's tutelage, and by the end of the season Consadole had climbed to a very respectable eleventh place

The following season Consadole began to reap the rewards of their thorough team restructuring in 2017. Midfielders Koji Miyoshi and Yoshiaki Komai were signed from Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds, respectively, mainly for their playmaking skills. The team also benefitted from low expectations, catching many top teams by surprise with their solid defending, rapid counterattacks and the ability to score many of their goals from set plays. A fourth-place finish may have flattered Consadole somewhat, but clearly the team had broken free of their mediocre past

At the close of 2018 Consadole unloaded nearly all of the old guard, including Ono, Inamoto, Tokura, Ryuji Kawai, Naoya Kikuchi, Shingo Hyodo and Naoya Ishikawa. Though this effort to rejuvenate the squad was unavoidable, Petrovic was only able to pick up a few newcomers to fill the gaps -- the most important of whom was Japan NT striker Musashi Suzuki. The loss of depth hurt Consadole over the course of the season, but with a much younger core roster, Sapporo fans can finally look forward to progress and skill improvement over the course of a season, rather than steady aging and deterioration. Though they dropped back down to midtable in 2019 (10th), the future looks brighter than it has in over a decade. Though they will probably need to add one or two top-shelf defenders before they can really hope to enter the ranks of true title contenders, they have more than enough offensive firepower to compete with anyone on a given day.

In 2020, Consadole's more balanced squad and new acquisitions were unable to boost their results (the Snow Owls finished 12th), but the revival in team support and merchandise revenue defied even the CoVid pandemic. And most importantly, Consadole registered its longest continuous stretch in the J1 - four years as of 2020. As the first 25 years of J.League history reached a conclusion, Consadole seemed to be moving in a positive direction. For the first time since early this century, football fans in the Great White North can look ahead to a bright future.

Team Results for 1998-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1998 (1st) 16 3 1 0   13 28 44 -16
1998 (2nd) 10 8 0 0   9 29 30 -1
1999 (J2) 5 15 2   6 13 54 35 19
2000(J2) 1 27 4   5 4 71 22 +49
2001 (1st) 8 6 0   3 6 20 21 -1
2001 (2nd) 14 3 1   2 9 23 29 -6
2002 (1st) 16 2 0   0 13 15 35 -20
2002 (2nd) 16 2 1   1 11 15 29 -14


Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003  9 52 13 13 18 57 56 +1
2004 12 30 5 15 24 30 62 -32
2005 6 63 17 12 15 54 57 -3
2006 6 72 20 12 16 77 67 +10
2007 1 91 27 10 11 66 45 +21
2008 (J1) 18 18 4 6 24 36 70 -34
2009 6 79 21 16 14 74 61 +13
2010 13 46 11 13 12 37 38 -1
2011 3 68 21 5 12 49 32 +17
2012 (J1) 18 14 4 2 28 25 88 -63
2013 8 64 20 4 18 60 48 +11
2014 10 59 15 14 13 48 44 +4
2015 10 57 14 15 13 47 43 +4
2016 1 85 25 10 7 65 33 +32
2017 (J1) 11 43 12 7 15 39 47 -8
2018 (J1) 4 55 15 10 9 48 48 +0
2019 (J1) 10 46 13 7 14 54 49 +5
2020 (J1) 12 39 10 9 15 47 58 -11

*Note: Data for results prior to 2003 is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the format, to eliminate "golden goal" overtime