Thursday, 23 November 2017

 

 


 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima is the oldest continuously active team in the J.League, as the historical successor team to Mazda Motor football club, which was founded in 1949. Oddly enough, the team's official publicity department downplays these links. Though many other teams have also distanced themselves from the corporations which gave them birth, in Sanfrecce's case it is a bit difficult to understand, since Mazda has been a fairly generous contributor to the team's development. In any event, Sanfrecce was very serious about implementing the J.League's initial directive to "focus on local identity and grassroots support. Though it took almost two decades for these efforts to produce material success, today they form the foundation for one of the League's most consistently competitive clubs.

Mazda was not a particularly strong JFL franchise, though the team had a brief flirtation with success just before and after the creation of the J.League, in 1993. The year before the league was created, Mazda Motor finished sixth, and was included one of the original founding teams. The team took the name "Sanfrecce", which is an odd combination of the Japanese word for "three" and the Italian word for "arrow". The three arrows is a potent symbol in the Hiroshima area: it refers to a historical daimyo (samurai cheiftain) who ruled the area, and who adopted the three arrows as his battle standard.

According to legend, Mori Motonari called his three sons together, handed each one an arrow and asked them to snap it in two. Each one did so with ease. Then he handed the youngest son three arrows, and asked him to break them in half. He was unable to do so, nor could the middle son or the eldest snap the shafts of three arrows at once. Motonari explained that each son -- by himself -- could be deadly, but would always be as fragile as a single arrow. However, if they always remained loyal to one another, and worked as a team, they would be like the three arrows -- unbreakable. The original Sanfrecce team emblem contained visual references to the Mazda legacy, but in 2004 the team adopted a new logo which contains more symbolism related to Hiroshima history, including the three arrows referred to in the legend.

Under the tutelage of Stewart Baxter, Sanfrecce Hiroshima had a reasonably successful year in 1993, and surprised everyone by winning the first stage title in 1994. Sanfrecce subsequently fell to Verdy Kawasaki in the league championship series, but the team was beginning to make a name for itself, behind players like national team striker Takuya Takagi and former Czech national team member Dominic Hasek.

Unfortunately, the success did not last beyond the departure of Baxter. Scotsman Eddie Thompson took over as coach in 1995, and the team began to decay. Thompson repeatedly argued (and not without some persuasiveness) that the team's problems were largely financial, and the club never provided him with the budget needed to put together a winning team. However, many other observers have noted that Thompson's defensive-minded strategy was ill-suited for the J.League, and point out that more than half of the teams in the league had finances which were even more limited than those at Thompson's disposal. In any event, Sanfrecce began to lose some of its top players to other teams, and by the time that Thompson left, at the end of the 1999 season, they had slipped down into mid-table obscurity.

Throughout the 1990s, Sanfrecce were a difficult team to beat, even when they were not doing well in the standings. The defensive philosophy developed and instilled under Thompson served them well in terms of limiting the opponent's scoring chances. However, after the departure of players like Takagi and Hasek, the Hiroshima offense was always too limited to contend for a title. Hiroshima also faced a problem that has troubled many other club based in western Japan -- a lack of fan support and, consequently, money. Though it has captured a large and loyal base throughout the eastern half of the country, as well as on the island of Kyushu, football has been slow to gain popularity in the region between Kyoto and Yamaguchi, on the western tip of Honshu. And without fans, no team can generate enough income to hold on to its best players. By 2002, a lack of talent at all positions, as well as weak coaching and some plain-old bad luck sent Sanfrecce tumbling into the second division.

This was naturally a disappointment for a team that had been one of the top clubs in the original J.League (and indeed, has the longest continuous history of any club in Japan). But Sanfrecce responded positively to this development. The shock of relegation forced the team to clean house and dump a lot of their high-priced players. But while Hiroshima has been slow to build a grassroots fan base, they have done a spectacular job of building their youth programme. By the early 2000s, Sanfrecce Hiroshima Youth was already turning out members of the U-18 national team by the handful, and when the team was relegated in 2002, they managed to persuade all of the young prospects to stay on. The team focused on developing a solid core of youngsters with strong prospects for the future, while going back to basics in their effort to build local fan support.

This focus on youth and quality paid off, as Sanfrecce rebounded to the J1 in just one season. However, despite a lot of positive signs such as a jump in attendances to a 15,000 average in 2003, the team seemed unable to take the next step. The team edged upward in the standings through the 2004 and 2005 seasons, as their younger players began to mature, but the Purple Archers never managed to climb above midtable, and the breif surge in attendances lasted barely a year. By 2006 the average home gate had dropped back to just over 11,000.

When a football team fails to perform, fans and management almost always blame the coach. Similarly, when a club with several obvious advantages fails to develop a competitive team, sports journalists invariably start asking questions about club management. In Sanfrecce's case the team has clearly done some things very well. The development of a powerful youth program, which generates a steady stream of players who get international experience with the Japan U-20 or U-23 teams, is by far the team's greatest achievement. And youth team development is a task that requires good management, forward-thinking leadership and a lot of hard work. Nevertheless, there are a host of other factors to suggest that something is not quite right in the Sanfrecce front office.

The team's failure to build a solid and consistently loyal fan base is obviously the most immediate problem. Because of their weak ticket sales, Sanfrecce still does not have the finances of teams in the eastern half of the country, or even greater Osaka, for that matter. Given the lack of money, and the fact that the team has succumbed to relegation on two separate occasions, it is nothing short of a miracle that Sanfrecce has not seen a much more dramatic exodus of players. It seems that the team has cultivated a great deal of loyalty from the players who came up through the youth system. But there have been a few exceptions, and those exceptions were critical. When Sanfrecce were relegated in 2002, they lost defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka who would go on to become a franchise player with Urawa Reds and a core fixture in the national team. The relegation at the end of the 2007 season, meanwhile, convinced right wing back Yuichi Komano to move on to a J1 club, if only to maintain his spot on the national team.

Sanfrecce has also shown a consistent inability to attract truly effective coaching talent. Takeshi Ono, who held the reins for four seasons in the mid-00s, was probably the most strategically intelligent of the lot. But the former Japan U-20 coach was best at identifying and cultivating youngsters. He managed to pack the team with players who saw at least some national team action at the U-20 or U-23 level, but was unable to take the team to the next level. After Ono's departure the Purple Archers were led by a series of relatively unimpressive coaches from eastern Europe. After struggling towards midtable in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Sanfrecce suffered another collapse of form in 2007, which seemed to defy explanation. Even as the team was losing critical league matches and dropping the promotion-relagation series to Kyoto Sanga, it managed to run circles around cup opposition and charged all the way to the final of the 2007 Emperor's Cup. The immaturity of key players cannot be overlooked completely, but it is hard to explain this contradictory performance without at least mentioning the coaches and team management.

As was the case in 2002, Sanfrecce responded to relegation in a very positive way. The team's J2 attendances rebounded to a level that surpassed all but one previous J1 campaign. The Purple Archers shot the competition to pieces, storming through the 2008 season and securing both a promotion berth and a the J2 title with more than two months left in the season. They finished the campaign with a phenomenal 100 points from 42 matches.

Following their impressive performance in the J2 during the breif relegation spell, most people expected the team to bounce back and perform well in 2009. However, few were prepared for the explosion of offensive energy that Sanfrecce unleased on their return to the J1. A lot of the team's energy seemed to be misdirected or squandered, at times, and there was little question that Sanfrecce was an immature team, that needs time to mature. Nevertheless, the Purple Archers blazed a trail through the league in 2009 and managed to finish in a surprising fourth place. This result was made even sweeter on New Year's Day 2010 when Gamba Osaka won the Emperor's Cup, thus opening up an ACL berth for the fourth-place team. And so, as the second decade of the 21st century opened, Hiroshima made their first appearance in the ACL.

In the wake of their impressive 2009 performance, many pundits wondered openly whether Sanfrecce was good enough to be considered a title contender. That speculation proved to be premature, however, as the loss of midfield playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi severely dented the team's offensive fluidity. The Purple Archers were a very enjoyable team to watch, in 2010, but their youthful exuberance was not enough to carry the team to long-term success. The challenge of ACL commitments proved to be a serious burden as well. Though they recovered in the latter stages of the season and managed to finish in seventh place, any thoughts of claiming silverware were dashed when the team lost the Nabisco Cup final to Jubilo Iwata.  

The loss of captain Tomoaki Makino, to Europe, set the team's ambitions back even further, and at the end of 2011 Petrovic was reunited with Makino and Kashiwagi thanks to the big bankbook of Urawa Reds. Though his departure ended an important and transformative era, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Although Petrovic's unique 3-6-1 formation and tactics were key factors in the team's rise to competitiveness, Sanfrecce allowed too many goals to win much silverware, and they were clearly a better cup team than a league power. Petrovic's assistant, Hajime Moriyasu (a former Sanfrecce team captain) retained the basic philosophy but made some important adjustments to strengthen the defense, and avoid the tendency for the back line to collapse when opposing teams counterattacked with long balls into the corners. These minor tweaks turned out to be the missing ingredient to success, and the Purple Archers surged to the top of the league table. Moriyasu led Sanfrecce to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, then repeated the feat one more time in 2015.

Sanfrecce definitely has the talent to maintain their position as a top competitor, but they face some difficult challenges in the next few years. The generation of players that emerged under Takeshi Ono, and were sculpted into champons by Petrovic and Moriyasu, are now nearing the end of the line. The club continues to produce talented young prospects by the busload, and youngsters like Takuma Asano, Tsukasa Shiotani, Sho Sasaki and Yusuke Chajima are beginning to emerge as potential replacements for the veterans. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the large number of players on the Sanfrecce roster who are nearing or past the age of 30. A change of generations will be needed within the next 2-3 seasons, and the Purple Archers may slip down in the rankings a bit while the transition takes place. It is a bit early to write off their chances for 2016, but it looks like the glory years may be nearing their end.


Team Results for 1993-2003

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1993 (1st) 6 9       9 23 24 -1
1993 (2nd) 5 9       9 31 25 6
1994 (1st) 1 17       5 44 26 18
1994 (2nd) 4 12       10 27 31 -4
1995 (1st) 10 13   0   13 38 33 5
1995 (2nd) 12 9   1   16 31 43 -12
1996 14 10   0   20 36 60 -24
1997 (1st) 10 6 1 1   8 22 23 -1
1997 (2nd) 13 5 0 0   11 21 27 -6
1998 (1st) 13 5 2 0   10 22 33 -11
1998 (2nd) 9 7 1 1   8 23 19 4
1999 (1st) 6 9 0   0 6 30 18 12
1999 (2nd) 8 6 1   1 7 24 25 -1
2000 (1st) 10 4 3   1 7 17 15 2
2000 (2nd) 11 5 1   1 8 23 25 -2
2001 (1st) 13 3 2   0 10 25 33 -8
2001 (2nd) 3 8 0   0 7 36 27 +9
2002 (1st) 15 3 0   1 11 14 26 -12
2002 (2nd) 14 4 1   2 8 18 21 -3

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (J2) 2 86 25 11 8 65 35 +30
2004 (1st) 13 15 3 6 6 15 19 -4
2004 (2nd) 11 16 3 7 5 21 23 -2
2005 7 50 13 11 10 50 42 +8
2006 10 45 13 6 15 50 56 -6
2007 16 32 8 8 18 44 71 -27
2008 (J2) 1 100 31 7 4 99 35 +64
2009 4 56 15 11 8 53 44 +9
2010 7 51 14 9 11 45 38 +7
2011 7 50 14 8 12 52 49 +3
2012 1 64 19 7 8 63 34 +29
2013 1 63 19 6 9 51 29 +22
2014 8 50 13 11 10 44 37 +7
2015 (1st) 3 34 10 4 3 29 16 +13
2015 (2nd) 1 40 13 1 3 44 14 +30
2016 (1st) 4 29 8 5 4 32 18 +14
2016 (2nd) 10 26 8 2 7 26 22 +4

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime