Monday, 18 January 2021

Sagan Tosu was one of the last clubs to join the J.League under the old format, which focused more on a team's willingness to make the jump and competitiveness on the JFL pitch rather than its financial and organizational strength. Based on the club's performance in its first few seasons of professional existence, some would say that it made the jump too soon. Over the first decade of Sagan's existence the team generated a lot more excitement in the financial newspapers than on the football pitch, treading a very fine line between the J2 basement and bankruptcy. However, once it overcame its initial growing pains, Sagan has developed into one of the more competitive "small-town teams" in the League.

Sagan Tosu was founded in 1997, just two years before the creation of the J.League second division, as a completely grassroots organisation. Even if they are not former "company teams", most J.League clubs have at least a few large corporate shareholders. Sagan, however, was established by 5000 local soccer fans living in the Tosu area of Saga prefecture, in northwestern Kyushu. The team selected a name that was about as basic and unimaginative as you might expect from an amateur group of 5000 local yokels. They took their city / prefectural address -- Tosu, Saga -- added an "n" to the name of the prefecture, and reversed the two words. "Sagan Tosu". How inventive! Though the team started out with very little in the way of financial backing, it did manage to attract some corporate sponsors in its first few years of existence, including Nike and Coca-Cola. This support facilitated the team's inclusion in the J2, when the second division was formed. Selecting a magpie as its mascot, and taking up residence in a beautiful football-only facility right next door to a major train station, it looked like Sagan had all the elements needed to build a small but solid football club

However, much of the team's apparent vigour was just a mirage created by companies hoping to "cash in" on football fever ahead of Japan's hosting of the 2002 World Cup. Sagan managed to finish near the middle of the table in both 1999 and 2000, but soon thereafter the sponsorship deals were withdrawn, and the team's finances dwindled precipitously as corporate sponsors bid Tosu farewell. Between 2001 and 2004, Sagan stumbled into the depths of despair both on-field and off. Sagan slipped to 10th place in 2001, recovered to ninth in the World Cup year, and then plunged into the J2 basement. With low attendances and no major corporate support, the club was on the edge of financial insolvency, By the end of 2004, Sagan Tosu was close to financial collapse, and was being monitored closely by the J.League to see whether the team could continue to be a viable club.

In 2005, Sagan Tosu received help from an unlikely source -- the professional magician "Princess Tenko", who two years earlier had offered similar financial support to Ventforet Kofu. Princess Tenko certainly seemed to have a magic touch; after pulling Ventforet out of the black box of bankruptcy, she made Tosu's financial and competitive woes disappear as well. Sagan got off to a fantastic start in 2005, temporarily rising as high as the second place spot. Over the course of the season its competitiveness waned, as one might expect after looking at their roster. However, the team's eighth place finish was the best it had managed since 2000 , and this at least provided some hope among local fans.

In the early years, Sagan had a hard time building a competitive team, and without a competitive team, fans in the Tosu area either ignored football altogether, or drifted away to support one of the other north-Kyushu clubs (Oita Trinita and Avispa Fukuoka are both located within an hour's drive of Tosu Stadium). But the emotional appeal of a team that had survived near-disaster in a bankruptcy court seemed to generate sympathy and interest. The city and prefecture got involved with both financial contributions and some aggressive marketing efforts, aimed at boosting local pride. By the end of 2005 it was clear that the team had turned the corner, and though still one of the J2's weaker clubs, there were signs that the Masked Magpies were ready to take flight at last

As it began its revival, Tosu started working hard to establish a bit of a "Korean identity", drawing on the abundance of talent that lies just across the Tsushima Strait from Saga prefecture, in Korea. First the team acquired veteran Yoon Jung-Hwan, who had previous J.League experience at Cerezo Osaka. In 2007 they added young striker Kim Shin-Yong, a member of Korea's universiade team, and in 2008, when Yoon retired, they picked up another recent university graduate Park Chong-bae. A steady stream of local Kyushu-area players also expanded the Sagan roster, and by 2008 the team was nipping at the heels of the promotion candidates. In 2009, Sagan got off to a slow start, but picked up two key players on loan -- Mike Havenaar and Koji Yamase -- and proceeded to make a late run at the leaders. The promotion bid fell short, but Tosu did manage to record their second-best performance ever, finishing in fifth place.

The strong popularity of football in Kyushu and the stimulus of local derbies with Avispa Fukuoka, Roasso Kumamoto, Oita Trinita, and Giravanz Kitakyushu, helped to boost attendances even further, and put Sagan firmly on its feet in terms of profitability. Now the Magenta Magpies can focus their attention solely on building a more competitive football team. Under the tutelage of former Cerezo Osaka midfield star and Korean NT legend Yoon Jung-Hwan, the team managed to finish third in the league in 2012, and earn their first ticket to the big time. 

When Sagan first won promotion, in 2012, few people expected the team to remain in the top-flight for long. But they failed to reckon with the effectiveness of coach Yoon's strategies, and his ability to get the most out of his players. Of course, Yoon benefitted from the efforts of his predecessors to build a very hard-running, hard-working unit which would be capable of implementing the "Korea-like" run-and-gun type of football that the coach promoted. Critical to the success was a former national team striker who had been unable to fit in at any other J1 club -- Yohei Toyoda. As a youth international and Nagoya Grampus striker, Toyoda was Keisuke Honda's roommate and close friend, but whereas Honda moved to Europe and steady advancement, Toyoda stagnated and was eventually dropped by Grampus. After a few interim stops at other J2 teams, Toyoda was finally picked up by Sagan, where his strength in the air and quick reactions could finally be put to proper use, while his relatively weak ball skills would not be exploited.

Yoon's philosophy (as with many other Korean coaches" is to play a counterattack-based game, which seeks to fire the ball into wide spaces as soon as possession is won, and then whipped into the box at the first opportunity, to creat a shot before defences can organize themselves. With speedy men like Kim Min-Woo, Ryunosuke Noda and Kota Mizunuma providing the service from the wings, Toyoda suddenly leapt into the upper reaches of the J1 scoring table. His scoring prowess and the overall strength of the Tosu defense not only kept Sagan in the J1, but allowed them to advance to the fringes of the title chase.

In 2014, Tosu got off to a flying start in the league campaign, and by the time the season broke for the 2014 World Cup, the Magenta Magpies were amazingly perched at the top of the table. Nobody has ever fully accounted for what happened next, and though neither side has openly criticised the other, it would appear that both Sagan management and Coach Yoon bear equal shares of the blame. The best guess we can make is that Yoon -- whose contract was due to expire before the end of the 2014 season -- made some lofty demands based on the team's position in the table, and Sagan management rebuffed him with so much bluster that Yoon stepped down. Some also claim that he was approached as a possible Korean National Team coach, and that this influenced his barganing position. If that is true, his Korea NT prospects fell through shortly after he quit Sagan. In any event, both coach and team paid a heavy price for the disagreement. As soon as Yoon departed, the Magpies toppled off their perch and ended up finishing fifth.

Since then, the team has struggled to find the sort of vibrant energy and team spirit that prevailed in the 1010-14 period. Yoon's understudy, Megumu Yoshida, saw out the 2014 season, and Hitoshi Morishita took over in 2015, but both adopted more "conventional" tactics which were unable to utilize Toyoda, or the wide wing players, as effectively as Coach Yoon's game plan did. In 2016, Massimo Ficcadenti took over and began restructuring the squad to try to suit his own tactical preferences. The talent, enthusiasm and fan backing Tosu had built in the Yoon era allowed them to solidify finances and find a stable position in the J1, albeit around midtable -- something that nobody would have anticipated prior to 2010.

Nevertheless, the magic seemed to be gone. Ficcadenti's team-building efforts hit a snag in 2018 when, quite suddenly, team management signed a deal with former Spanish legend Fernando Torres, at midseason. Vissel Kobe had just completed a deal with Andres Iniesta, and already had Lucas Podolski on the roster. No doubt the Magenta Magpies hoped to cash in on the publicity that was already building, around the arrival of several former World Cup champions. Unfortunately, Torres suffered the same fate that so many aging stars have experienced in the J.League. The former World Cup winner's technical skill was not enough to offset the effects of age, and Torres managed just three goals over 17 contests.

Ficcadenti took the fall for Sagan's 14th-place finish in 2018. But a 15th-place finish in 2019, under LLuis Carreras, made it clear that coaching was not the problem. Torres simply was not a good fit with the team, and as the season went along the less he played, the better the Magpies performed. Torres announced his retirement in late 2019, bringing an end to this inauspicious experiment.

Sagan Tosu have a tough job ahead of them if they hope to return to the successes of 2012-14, much less claim any silverware. As a small-budget, small-town team, they need to learn how to compete within their means. It will be another 9 months before we know how much of a dent Torres' tenure in Tosu has put in the team budget. Unlike Vissel, Sagan cannot swallow this sort of a financial loss without some longer-term impact.

Fortunately, the Magpies still have some talent, and an increasingly enthusiastic fan base. In 2020, the team found it difficult just to stave off relegation (the CoVid pandemic spared them a relegation scrap). In the future, the team needs to concentrate on its traditional strengths -- hard work and combativeness -- and stop trying to live beyond their means.

 Team Results for 1999-2001

Year Rank W D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 9 11 1 2 22 52 64 -12
2000 5 13 2 5 20 41 52 -11
2001 10 8 2 4 30 45 82 -37

Team Results for 2002-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 9 41  9 14 21 41 64 -23
2003 12 20  3 11 30 40 89 -49
2004 11 35  8 11 25 32 66 -34
2005 8 52 14 10 20 58 58 +0
2006 4 79 22 13 13 64 49 +15
2007 8 72 21 9 18 63 66 -3
2008 6 64 19 7 16 50 51 -1
2009 5 88 25 13 13 71 51 +20
2010 9 51 13 12 11 42 41 +1
2011 2 69 19 12 7 68 34 +34
2012 (J1) 5 53 15 8 11 48 39 +9
2013 (J1) 12 46 13 7 14 54 63 -9
2014 (J1) 5 60 19 3 12 41 33 +8
2015 (1st) 11 20 5 5 7 22 32 -10
2015 (2nd) 13 20 4 8 5 15 22 -7
2016 (1st) 15 17 4 5 8 10 15 -5
2016 (2nd) 8 29 8 5 4 26 22 +4
2017 (J1) 8 47 13 8 13 41 44 -3
2018 (J1) 14 41 10 11 13 29 34 -5
2019 (J1) 15 36 10 6 18 32 53 -21
2020 (J1) 13 36 7 15 12 37 43 -6

 Note: Pre-2002 data is separated from more recent results to reflect the change in the J.League format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.