Friday, 25 September 2020

 


Over a period of nearly two decades, Vissel Kobe has been a source of entertainment, exasperation, excitement, agitation and occasional embarrassment for the people of Hyogo prefecture. Though the team has been through several phases of reorganization and revival, occasionally even edging towards the upper end of the league table, Vissel needed 25 years of preparation to capture a title of any kind (the 2019 Emperor's Cup was their first-ever trophy). This is a source of frustration for fans in the area, who enviously eye relatively-close neighbors like Gamba Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and even Kyoto Sanga, and wonder why those teams can achieve the success that always eludes Kobe. 

Many factors have contributed to Vissel Kobe’s struggles over the years, but perhaps the greatest reason for this perpetual under-performance has been the team’s lack of continuity and coherence. Throughout its existence Vissel has been an enigmatic team, with decent fan support, good facilities and above-average youth programs to serve as a breeding ground for players, but no clear direction or strategy for the club or for the players. On a few occasions, changes in coaching or front-office management have given fans hope. But each new season seems to bring another shift in concept, strategy and direction, perhaps reflecting the team’s impatient ownership.

The best example of this came in 2016-17, following the arrival of coach Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho), a proven leader who had achieved success at two other J.League teams. If Nelsinho had been given the time and support he needed to chart a clear direction and build a team to match his strategies, this might have been the first step towards a more competitive Vissel Kobe. But despite taking the team to its best half-season record in history, Nelsinho was sacked by impatient executives looking for the next “new concept.” When you consider the multitude of changes that the club has been through already, in a mere two decades, it is easy to find reasons for pessimism. 

As noted in the introduction, Vissel Kobe got its start in 1994, as "Kobe Orange Soccer Club." While most of the J.League’s original members were based on pre-existing “company teams”, Vissel was one of the first teams to be established on a completely new base, in a city with no previous football team. Since it would have been a daunting task to build a team completely from scratch, the organizers convinced Kawasaki Steel Corporation – which had a company club team in the regional (amateur) league at the time – to release all the players who wanted to pursue a football career. The players all moved to Kobe (from Kawasaki Steel’s factory base in Okayama) and became the core of the new team.

Though Kobe Orange Soccer Club had several large corporate backers, including Daiei and Ito Ham, the main force behind the club’s creation was the Kobe city government. A decade or so later, the support and connections provided by local governments would come to be seen as a source of strength for up-and-coming teams. But while the community-based, non-corporate model worked fairly well for Shimizu S-Pulse, and for some more recently created teams, in Kobe’s case it would take the club to the brink of disaster.

Before discussing Vissel’s eventful history, though, it helps to examine some of the details of Vissel Kobe’s formation, to illustrate that this team has always been a bit weak when it comes to “the vision thing”. The parent corporation – Kobe Orange Soccer Club – was created two years into the “J.League era”. Football was a huge public relations success, business was booming, and many large cities were eager to get in on the revenue-spinning action. Daiei, whose brand logo included a big orange ball, was the source for the corporate name. However, a year into its existence the team decided to follow the lead of other existing J.League clubs, and adopted an official team name to reflect the character and history of the city. After much careful thought and planning, and to great fanfare, they unveiled the new team name: Vissel Kobe.

Vissel was created by combining the words "victory" and "vessel". Kobe has a long history as a major port in Japan, so they wanted a name with some reference to ships or boats. And since they were a sports team, they wanted to win their games. “Vissel” represented a ship that was going to carry Kobe to victory! Next, team officials decided they needed a local look for a mascot. Since the Kobe area is famous for its high-quality beef, they chose a cow as their mascot, and named it “Movi”.

Vissel Kobe never seems to be quite sure what it wants to be. This is not to say that Kobe is a bad team. On the contrary, ever since the team first earned promotion to the J.League's upper division, in 1997, it has been viewed as a difficult opponent. When you play against Vissel, you can never be sure what will happen. Unfortunately, while Kobe frequently managed to upset the League’s top contenders, they had a habit of losing to weaker opposition. While performances from week to week were inconsistent, their place in the J.League pecking order was pretty stable – the club invariably finished the season in the bottom half of the table.

Vissel has never finished higher than eighth place in J1, but at least for the first decade, the team was also able to stay out of regulation danger. For a while, it seemed that they might find a consistent niche in the top division while never threatening to climb into contention for a title. But a series of misfortunes caused the team to become increasingly dependent on local government support – a situation that encouraged slack management and eventually led to financial problems as well.

In retrospect, the financial woes can be traced back to the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which hit in January 1995, before Vissel had even earned promotion to the J.League. The shock of that disaster – both literal and figurative – actually boosted fan support for the football team, as a symbol of local pride. However, while this momentum helped carry Vissel into the professional ranks, it cost them their largest corporate sponsor. The Daiei supermarket conglomerate was hard-hit by the quake, and had to sell its stake in Vissel as part of a comprehensive restructuring. The city government invested 70 million yen to acquire Daiei’s stake and refinance Vissel Kobe. In addition to its investment stake, the city government also began loaning money to the team to support operations. These low-interest-rate loans swelled to a total of about 1.5 billion yen by 2003.

In the mean time, Vissel was struggling to find a coherent team concept. Shortly after its formation, the team managed to convince Stuart Baxter, a Scottish player and coach who acquired substantial experience coaching in Scandanavia, then served as Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s coach from 1992 to 1994, to take the helm of the new club. Baxter was a strong leader who did a good job of taking Kobe into the professional ranks. On the other hand, his strong character and lack of flexibility created a great deal of friction, and led to his departure at the end of 1997 – Vissel’s first year in J1. Baxter’s influence was so strong, in fact, that subsequent coaches had difficulty stepping into his shoes. The next two years saw three coaches come and go creating further confusion and incoherence. It was not until Ryoichi Kawakatsu took over, at the end of 1999, that Vissel began to see some degree of stability and direction.

During Baxter’s reign, and in the period just after it, Vissel seemed to have no real strategic vision for developing the team and building its fan base. One year they would hire well-known Korean internationals like Kim Do-hoon, Ha Seok-ju and Choi Sung-yong to support a fast-paced, wing-oriented attacking strategy. A year later they were signing Brazilians like Sidiclei de Souza, Carlos Alberto dos Santos and Daniel Conceicao, while focusing on ball possession and counterattacks. Not surprisingly, this confused fans and players alike, and earned the team a reputation for inconsistent results on the pitch as well. The biggest problem was the lack of any experienced football minds in the ranks of team management. Player acquisitions showed no real strategic common sense. In fact, it often seemed that Vissel signed players based on how famous they were, rather than how much they could contribute to team performance. 

This trend towards “icon collecting”, as some observers described it, reached its peak in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup. Kobe was selected as one of the host cities for World Cup matches, thanks in part to the city funding a flashy new stadium. Kobe Wing Stadium, as it was initially named, is a very well appointed facility – a football-only venue with retractable roof and a seating capacity of close to 30,000. Since the city government was still the main stakeholder in Vissel Kobe, there was a lot of pressure to do things that would “capture the interest of fans worldwide”, and thus earn Kobe international publicity. Whether this was the main reason for the team’s personnel choices or whether it was just a contributing factor, in the 2001 and 2002 seasons Vissel signed a slew of former Japan national team players who were looking for a late-career paycheck. Apparently, name recognition was the key, as many of the incoming players had long since passed their prime. 

Leading the pack was Kazuyoshi (“King Kazu”) Miura, who in his prime was one of Japan's finest football players Japan ever produced. The move to Kobe was actually a beneficial one for Kazu, who was assigned the role of team diplomat and public relations chief, as well as team leader in the locker room. Over the five-year period that he spent in Kobe, Kazu made the transformation from football player to football “personality” and media guru, making progressively fewer contributions on the pitch but steadily increasing his influence and impact on team finances, grassroots appeal to fans and publicity for the club. In the long run, the deal was good for Vissel as well. But in 2001 and 2002 it simply increased the weight of club debt.

Another addition early in the year was Shigeyoshi Mochizuki, whose resume includes the winning goal in Japan's 2000 Asian Cup championship match, but also features a record of firing and censure by Nagoya Grampus, after Mochizuki and two other players defied the authority of then-coach Joao Carlos. Vissel also picked up former Urawa Reds speedster Masayuki Okano, who was famous for scoring the goal that sent Japan to the 1998 World Cup, but who was losing his sprinter's pace and never had much scoring ability. Other former national team stars included midfielder Takashi Hirano and striker Shoji Jo, both of whom were once viewed as "golden boys". Despite laying out a lot of money to pack their roster with “stars”, Kobe was barely able to remain above the relegation zone. Even as the team slipped closer and closer to the bottom end of the league table, their financial problems kept growing. By the end of the 2003 season, the red ink had grown so large that even the Kobe government could no longer foot the bill. In November, Vissel fans were shocked by the abrupt announcement that the team was bankrupt, and would be sold off to the highest bidder!

While the shock of this near-collapse was felt throughout the J.League, it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Coming so soon after the dissolution of Yokohama Flugels, Vissel’s bankruptcy created a panic among fans in Kobe and across the country, as the media began discussing what might happen if the team was purchased by investors from some other city. League officials were as concerned as anyone about that sort of a precedent, and they lobbied vigorously to find Kobe-based investors to take over team management. Luckily a local boy, Mr. Hiroshi Mikitani, agreed to step in and save Vissel Kobe. Mr. Mikitani is the founder of the Crimson Group, a consulting and services conglomerate that owns the Internet commerce website "Rakuten". The news that Mr. Mikitani was determined to keep the club in Kobe attracted so much support and positive media attention that when Kobe City’s capital stake was auctioned off, there was only one bidder – the Crimson Group. 

By saving the local team from a fate worse than death, the Crimson Group and Mr. Mikitani earned so much gratitude from local football fans that they were even willing to forgive the team’s continued lack of success. From an objective point of view, however, this takeover was just another turn in the ongoing cycle of frustration and poor management. Mr. Mikitani clearly enjoyed the sudden fame and goodwill he received for keeping Vissel in Kobe, and he may have allowed the enthusiasm to overwhelm his business instincts. As soon as the deal was sealed, he began promising the Kobe faithful to use the financial resources of his Crimson Group to build the team into a contender. Within days of taking over control, the new owners were tossing around names such as "Baggio" and "Rivaldo" as possible acquisition targets, while gleefully soaking up the spotlight. 

Unfortunately, J.League rules on financial contributions from stakeholders set limits on the amount of cash the Crimson Group could actually pump into the club. Besides, the last thing Vissel needed at that point was another “star”. The roster was already packed with players whose egos outstripped their abilities. At the time, the J.League still had few precedents to serve as a warning. However, history has shown that most "big international stars" who come to Japan fail to produce results commensurate with their price tags. It is easy to employ 20:20 hindsight and criticize the deals that brought Freddie Ljungberg, Dwight Yorke or Diego Forlan to Japan. However, at least in those cases the players had good reputations and a clean bill of health. In Kobe’s case, the "big star" signed in the wake of Crimson Group’s takeover was Ilhan Mansiz, fresh from a starring performance for third-place Turkey at the 2002 World Cup. However, European scouts had passed on his option, as they were aware that he had suffered a severe knee injury after returning to Besiktas, and even that team’s doctors thought it could be a career-ending mishap. It took over six months for Vissel coaches to realize that they had bought damaged goods. Ilhan left Kobe 10 months later without a single goal or assist, and only three appearances to his credit.

After the Ilhan fiasco, Kobe management was more cautious (and had less money to throw around). The next big signing, Patrick Mboma, proved to be a slightly better deal, although his two years in Kobe were more a farewell tour than a blockbuster stage show. The efforts to sign aging national team players continued as well, giving Vissel fans a chance to collect autographs from a lot of well-known players, but generating little return from a football standpoint. Tomoyuki Hirase, Kim Nam-il, Kazuki Ganaha, Atsuhiro Miura, Ryuji Bando… the list is a long one, and few of the names made any real contribution to Vissel success. 

If personnel selection had been the only problem, perhaps fans would have taken the team’s struggle in stride. But in 2005 the Crimson Group started meddling with Vissel’s very identity, and this would produce a backlash that the team took a while to overcome. Mr. Mikitani is a graduate of Harvard Business School, and his fascination with his alma mater extended to the visual identity of Harvard’s sports teams. The “Harvard Crimson” provided the inspiration for Mr. Mikitani’s company name, and as new executive of Vissel Kobe, he decided to extend his crimson fascination to the team as well. Vissel adopted an entirely new logo, and abandoned its traditional Novocastrian uniforms for crimson-coloured kits. Even opposing team fans were appalled by the change, and it took years for the locals to fully accept the new colour scheme. As is usually the case, whether in business or in football, you can only make so many mistakes before they eventually catch up to you. For Vissel, the price they paid for one too many blunders was relegation to the second division, at the end of their hapless 2005 season. 

This setback was discouraging for Kobe fans, but it was not a complete tragedy. It seems that relegation was a useful lesson for the Crimson Group and team management. The setback forced them to accept that there is no easy path to success in the J.League. Unlike the situation in some European countries, the J.League’s rules make it hard for a rich investor to “buy” success. It takes comprehensive planning and a long-term effort to build a competitive team. Although Vissel is still struggling to put the pieces into place, the decade since their 2005 demotion to J2 has been a bit more rewarding for fans of the Kobe Crimson.

Vissel bounced back to the J1 in a single season, and though they remained in the lower half of the table for the next five years, there was a slow but perceptible improvement in both team performance and local support. Fans eventually overcame their sense of betrayal for the corporate rebranding, and by 2012 the team was attracting an average of around 15,000 fans to Kobe Wing Stadium. The team still was not creating enough talent through its youth organization to compete with the likes of Sanfrecce Hiroshima or the two Osaka clubs, nor did it have the scouting organization and reputation to attract top prospects from the high school and university ranks. However, it did have a more stable financial foundation than ever before, and a modest but growing budget for signing mid-career players. 

In 2012 Vissel decided to make another bid to leap into the ranks of contenders, signing a number of experienced veterans at the start of the season from other leading contenders. From Kashima Antlers they acquired defender Masahiko Inoha, midfielder Takuya Nozawa and striker Yuzo Tashiro, while Gamba Osaka provided veteran midfielder Hideo Hashimoto and defender Kazumichi Takagi. All were past their career peaks, and were released by Gamba and Antlers to make room for younger talent. However, unlike Vissel’s previous splurge of investment in washed-up stars during the early 00s, this time around the new players all seemed capable of contributing to club success. 

Perhaps if the coaching staff had used the newcomers more effectively, or done a better job of integrating them with existing personnel, this strategy could have been a bit more successful. Instead, it only created discord and confusion, followed by a period of emotional depression when players realized that their high hopes of becoming a contender were just pipe dreams. Vissel slipped into a downward spiral and management panicked, firing coach Masahiro Wada and thus compounding the confusion. Before the team could find its rhythm, they had secured a ticket back to the second division. Kobe’s second bout with relegation was as short-lived as the first, and though they ended up finishing second in J2 to cross-Kansai rivals Gamba Osaka, they returned to the top-flight for the 2014 season.

In football – as in life – one can always look forward to the hope of a brighter future. Football fans in Kobe certainly deserve the chance to experience some success, for once. This far, the team’s twenty-year history had been one of continued disappointment and frustration. In 2014 the team got off to a strong start after the return to division 1 football, but after briefly climbing all the way to the top of the table, Vissel slipped back down to their more customary position in the bottom half, with an 11th place finish.

While personnel may help to determine results, in Vissel’s case the team’s struggles had been primarily the result of poor team management. If the club hoped to change its fortunes there were a few things that the head office needed to do. First, they needed to accept that there are no short-cuts, and that only long-term plans with steady progress would allow them to overcome their second-rate status. Second, and most importantly, the team needed to select an intelligent coach with a good history of team development, and allow him to build the team without interference from the front office. 

At the start of 2015, Vissel addressed this second point, by hiring Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho), who had achieved success with several J.League teams in the past. As we have already discussed, Nelsinho led the Crimson Tide to their best finish ever -- second place in the 2016 second stage -- only to be sacked six months later by an impatient owner and a weak management team.

In 2017, Mr. Mikitani finally raked together some capital and set out to turn the Kobe Crimson into a more competitive team. The Rakuten Group had inked a sponsorship deal with Real Madrid, and Mr. Mikitani used the connections to build friendly relations with some of the Galacticos' veteran players. In 2017 the team signed former World Cup-winning striker Lucas Podolski, and they followed up this acquisition in 2018 with the signing of Andres Iniesta and David Villa. Kobe also picked up some veteran Japanese stars, including Daigo Nishi from Kashima Antlers, Hotaru Yamaguchi from Cerezo Osaka, and Junya Tanaka, from Kashiwa Reysol.

The influx of talent certainly boosted Kobe's core competitiveness, but as the Urawa Reds discovered about a decade earlier, in the J.League at least, money cannot buy happiness... much less a league title. Even with Podolski, Iniesta and Villa providing the offensive muscle, Vissel struggled just to remain clear of relegation, throughout most of 2018 and 2019. It was only towards the end of the 2019 season, after Villa had announced his pending retirement and Podolski had been knocked out of the starting lineup by injury, that Vissel finally began to gel as a team.   

Despite a less-than-impressive eighth-place finish in 2019, the Crimson Tide advanced steadily in the final months of the season, and closed the 2019 campaign by claiming the Emperor's Cup crown on New Year's Day 2020 -- the team's first major trophy! Only time will tell whether this achievement can be translated into longer-term success. One suspects that Kobe (like other "midtable teams" in the past) will struggle to negotiate the double-challenge of ACL participation and J.League success. But at least an ACL berth will serve as some morale boost to long-suffering fans. It will be interesting to see how well coach Finke can balance the demands, and how well the club's many aging veterans can handle the greater workload. 


Team Results for 1997-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET PK
1997 (1st) 14 5 1 0   10 24 34 -10
1997 (2nd) 17 1 2 0   13 19 44 -25
1998 (1st) 17 3 0 0   14 20 48 -28
1998 (2nd) 14 5 0 1   11 25 41 -16
1999 (1st) 12 4 1   1 9 20 24 -4
1999 (2nd) 7 5 2   3 4 18 21 -3
2000 (1st) 7 7 0   1 7 21 17 4
2000 (2nd) 14 3 1   0 11 19 32 -13
2001 (1st) 10 5 1   2 7 16 20 -4
2001 (2nd) 13 3 0   5 7 25 32 -7
2002 (1st) 13 3 1   1 10 12 22 -10
2002 (2nd) 10 5 1   2 7 21 22 -1

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 13 16 5 1 9 18 34 -16
2003 (2nd) 13 14 3 5 7 17 29 -12
2004 (1st) 12 15 3 6 6 21 25 -4
2004 (2nd) 8 21 6 3 6 29 30 -1
2005 18 21 4 9 21 30 67 -37
2006 (J2) 3 86 25 11 12 78 53 +25
2007 10 47 13 8 13 58 48 10
2008 10 47 12 11 11 39 38 +1
2009 14 39 10 9 15 40 48 -8
2010 15 38 9 11 14 37 45 -8
2011 9 46 13 7 14 44 45 -1
2012 16 39 11 6 17 41 50 -9
2013 (J2) 2 83 25 8 9 78 41 +37
2014 11 45 11 12 11 49 50 -1
2015 (1st) 13 19 4 7 6 17 19 -2
2015 (2nd) 13 19 6 1 10 27 30 -3
2016 (1st) 12 20 5 5 7 23 25 -2
2016 (2nd) 2 35 11 2 4 33 18 +15
2017 9 44 13 5 16 40 45 -5
2018 10 45 12 9 13 45 52 -7
2019 8 47 14 5 15 61 59 +2

*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.