Saturday, 03 June 2023

Shonan Bellmare has a long and dignified history, but due to financial mismanagement in the early years of its J.League existence, almost everything impressive about the team has now been relegated to the past. Bellmare's pre-J.League forerunner, Fujita Industries, was one of the powerhouses of the Japan Soccer League during the late 1960s and 1970s. However, you will find not a hint of information about Fujita Industries, or any mention of this relationship if you visit the current Shonan Bellmare website. Perhaps it is understandable that the team would prefer to forget its past, even though the team's current standing in the J.League heirarchy pales in comparison to its past glory.

Long-time fans still feel a deep sense of bitterness about Fujita, which cut off all financial support in 1999 during a financial crisis at the parent company, and left Bellmare dangling over an abyss. Like the fans of Yokohama Flugels, who also were abandoned by their corporate sponsors, Bellmare fans and a few team executives were left to fend for themselves, reorganize and seek new sponsors. Despite the bad feelings that linger, however, it is impossible to relate the team's history without mentioning the long record of success enjoyed by the Fujita team that gave birth to today's Shonan Bellmare.

Fujita Industries FC was based on the Pacific coast of Japan just a short distance from Yokohama, making it a fierce rival of the other top JSL clubs in the area during the 1970s, such as Nissan FC (later Yokohama Marinos) and Yomiuri Club (later Verdy Kawasaki). When Japan was preparing to launch the J.League, Fujita had been on a recent run of success, and was one of the country's strongest clubs. However, when the team was offered an opportunity to set up an independent management structure and join the J.League as a founding member, Fujita decided to maintain control of team management, and remain in the JFL. After winning the JFL title in 1993, however, the sponsors apparently took note of the huge crowds and piles of money that J.League clubs were attracting and had a change of heart. A separate management company was established, and the team joined the J.League under the name Bellmare Hiratsuka.

The name "Bellmare" is taken from the Italian words for "beautiful sea", and refers to the scenic seacoast in the Shonan area, southwest of Yokohama. Their mascot, King Bell, seems to be modeled on a cross between a Disney character and the Greek God Poseidon, in keeping with the team's "ocean-related" theme. While Bellmare was a fairly successful club during the first few years of the J.League, management was extraordinarily bad. As was the case with their decision to reject, and then accept J.League membership, most club decisions seemed to be based on monetary considerations. Every player who demonstrated any real talent was immediately sold to the highest bidder, in return for cash, and there are suggestions that this was used to reduce the financial burden on Fujita, rather than to develop the team.

Having sold off star players such as Akira Narahashi, Wagner Lopes, Kazuaki Tasaka and, of course, Hidetoshi Nakata, Bellmare began to descend through the rankings until it was relegated in 1999. At this point, Fujita Industries and the club parted company. After floundering for financial support and coming close to bankruptcy, Bellmare was eventually rescued by, an internet firm associated with the famed Japanese midfielder. The club changed its name to Shonan Bellmare, thus expanding its "home town" area to cover the entire area between the southern fringe of Yokohama and the border with Shizuoka. Though the change enhanced the team's association with the ocean (for Tokyo-ites of a certain age, "Shonan" is virtually synonymous with "beach"), it did not really do much to improve attendances.

Bellmare can be viewed as a case study in how to achieve successful mediocrity. The team has associations with many successful players, but has always traded them away just before they reach star status (they did this again in 2002, with defender Teruaki Moniwa). Bellmare has a fairly solid base of core fans, but it is relatively small, and has trouble expanding beyond the shadow of nearby teams like YokohamaF•Marinos. Management has improved dramatically since the break with Fujita, and is now steadily profitable, but the front office does not seem to be particularly insightful.

Shonan Bellmare has shown signs of revival in recent years, though it has been a very slow and gradual process. The team finished squarely in the middle of the J2 ranks from the time it was relegated in 1999 until the 2006 season. In 2005, the former head coach of Japan women's national team, Eiji Ueda, took over the management reins and brought in some veterans such as former Kashiwa Reysol midfielder Nozomu Kato, which added some needed experience and talent. In the early months of the season it looked like Bellmare might challenge for a promotion spot, but the Sea Kings eventually faded, and slipped back to their accustomed place in the middle of the J2 pack. Coach Ueda departed as Bellmare dipped further in the standings, during 2006.

However, the strategies introduced by Ueda did seem to point in the direction of future success. While continuing to build an energetic core of youngsters from the youth program and local high schools, Bellmare went out searching for veterans with the same sort of influence and skill that Kato had provided. In 2007 S-Pulse veteran Toshihide Saito and FC Tokyo defender Jean Carlo Witte joined the squad. Once again, the team could not maintain their early momentum and thus fell well short of a promotion spot, but their sixth-place finish was the team's best result since 2002. Continued efforts to attract experience players who were at the end of their J1 careers allowed the team to advance further in 2008, to a fifth-place finish.

The following season Bellmare made their strongest bid for promotion in a decade, hiring former Japan Olympic team coach Yasuharu Sorimachi to guide the team towards a top-three finish. Although Bellmare struggled with a variety of issues from the advancing age of their core members to the inconsistency of foreign players, a slew of mid-season acquisitions provided just enough of an added boost to carry them into the J1, on the final day of the season. Thus, in 2010, Bellmare returned to the top-flight division for the first time in a decade.

All in all, the team simply didn't have the quality or the depth to achieve much success in 2010, and despite a few uplifting moments, the final verdict on Bellmare's J1 stint was resoundingly negative. They recorded the worst goal difference in J.League history - minus 51 - after conceding 84 goals in just 34 matches. The core players were all near the end of their careers, and the collapse in 2010 simply provided a greater impetus for rebuilding. Key players like Koji Sakamoto, Yoshito Terakawa and Jean Carlo Witte announced their retirement as the team bid farewell to J1 for a second time.

Bellmare had to start from a fairly low base to rebuild the team, and expectations for the 2011 season were fairly subdued. Coach Sorimachi kept his job, but was let go before the close of that campaign. His replacement, Cho Kwi-Jae - a Japanese-born Korean who had played for Hitachi as they became Kashiwa Reysol, and then moved on to Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe - set about rebuilding Bellmare in his own image. Virtually everything about the team, from its basic philosophy to its personnel preferences, were reorganized completely, as the team started to reinvent itself, much as the Shonan Shoreline has been forced to do now that tourists can take a short plane ride to Guam or Saipan, rather than drive down to the beaches of southern Kanagawa.

The new Bellmare was tough, scrappy, stingy on defence, and most importantly, packed with graduates of either the Bellmare youth system or other Kanto-area clubs. Many of the current regulars have been with Bellmare for all of their pro careers, but came up through the youth academies of Marinos, Ardija, FC Tokyo or Tokyo Verdy. It would seem that coach Cho was able to make these acquisitions because he was looking for qualities other than what the "big city" clubs emphasize. However, Bellmare's emphasis on hustle, hard work and unrelenting, physical play has been so successful that many of those players are now being scouted (and some snatched away) by the same big-city clubs who originally let them leave.

Coach Cho's strategy paid off almost immediately, as young talents like Wataru Endo and Kaoru Takayama carried the Beach Boys to a second-place finish in J2. This turned out to be something of a setback, because the team was far too young and incomplete to stay up. However, following relegation in 2013 Bellmare immediately bounced back, and won the J2 title in 2014. This time the club was more mature, finances were a bit more stable, and Bellmare managed to finish solidly mid-table in 2015. But again, success was short-lived. Wataru Endo - the first Bellmare player since Hide Nakata to earn consistent call-ups to the National Team - was lured away in 2016 by the large checkbook of Urawa Reds. Takayama followed in his footsteps, and some of the other young prospects were lured to wealthier clubs. Bellmare dropped back into the second division, finishing dead last over the two-stage season.

The dynamic that Bellmare has fallen into resembles that which plagued Kyoto Sanga in the first decade of the century. They have become a "league yo-yo", bouncing back and forth between first and second division. Each drop into the second tier allows young members to acquire experience, while a relatively large budget compared to J2 rivals allows Bellmare to add talent over the course of a year or two. But each rise to J1 has been brief, as the team fails to hang onto its better players. Following a drop into J2 in 2017, Bellmare climbed back right away, and managed to stay in the top flight for a third consecutive year thanks to a 1-0 victory in the promotion/relegation playoff, against Tokushima Vortis. But the hugely influential coach Cho was banished from the Bellmare ranks late in the year, following repeated accusations that he was subjecting players to "excessive verbal and physical harrassment."

The departure of coach Cho was a fitting conclusion to Bellmare's first quarter-century. Not surprisingly, Shonan struggled to overcome the loss of their gaffer, who built the team entirely in his own mold, but thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic the team was spared the danger of relegation. Despite finishing dead last, Bellmare remained in J1 as promotion/relegation was suspended for a year. This may have saved the team from a prolonged stint in J2; they have managed to recover and achieve modest success - if success means retaining a spot in the top-flight.

Those fans who have remained faithful to the Lime Green through all the ups and downs closed out the 2010s hoping that that this "new start" will lead to a genuine new era of success. Unfortunately, the team lacks a truly influential sponsor or solid revenue source, and competition for fans is growing, not only from long-time local rivals like Marinos, Frontale and Yokohama FC, but also from rising new clubs in the area, such as SC Sagamihara.

One can only wait and see what sort of a structure rises on the sandy shoreline, over the next few years. Though the team registered its longest phase of J1 play since the Hiratsuka era, one suspects that this "success" may be little more than a castle made of sand. 

Team Results for 1994-1999 (Bellmare Hiratsuka)

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1994 (1st) 11 7       15 27 54 -27
1994 (2nd) 2 16       6 48 26 22
1995 (1st) 7 14   1   11 60 47 +13
1995 (2nd) 14 7 1     18 34 55 -21
1996 11 12       18 47 58 -11
1997 (1st) 4 8 2     6 25 20 5
1997 (2nd) 9 6 1 1   8 30 32 -2
1998 (1st) 12 5 2 1   9 27 34 -7
1998 (2nd) 12 7 0 1   9 26 32 -6
1999 (1st) 16 15 3   0 12 15 33 -18
1999 (2nd) 16 1 0   1 4 15 39 -24

Team Results for 2000-Present (Shonan Bellmare)

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2000 8 43 15 1 24 59 71 -12
2001 8 60 20 4 20 64 61 +3
2002 5 64 16 16 12 46 43 +3
2003 10 44 11 11 22 33 53 -20
2004 10 36 7 15 22 39 64 -25
2005 7 54 13 15 16 46 59 -13
2006 11 49 13 10 25 61 87 -26
2007 6 77 23 8 17 72 55 +17
2008 5 65 19 8 15 68 48 +20
2009 3 98 29 11 11 84 52 +32
2010 (J1) 18 16 3 7 24 31 82 -51
2011 14 46 12 10 16 46 48 -2
2012 2 75 20 15 7 66 43 +23
2013 (J1) 16 25 6 7 21 34 62 -28
2014 1 101 31 8 3 86 25 +61
2015 (J1 1st) 10 22 6 4 7 20 24 -4
2015 (2nd) 9 26 7 5 5 20 20 +0
2016 (J1 1st) 16 16 4 4 9 18 27 -9
2016 (2nd) 17 11 3 2 12 12 29 -17
2017  1 83 24 11 7 58 36 +22
2018 (J1) 13 41 10 11 13 38 43 -5
2019 (J1) 16 36 10 6 18 40 63 -23
2020 (J1) 18 27 6 9 19 29 48 -19
2021 (J1) 16 37 7 16 15 36 41 -7
2022 (J1) 12 41 10 11 13 31 39 -8