Monday, 30 January 2023

 


Yokohama FC chose an apt symbol as their emblem. Like the phoenix featured on their crest, this team really did arise from the ashes to live again. Yokohama FC was formed in 1998 by the fan club of the former Yokohama Flugels, a relatively successful J.League team that was suddenly abandoned by its corporate sponsors. Flugels were a very popular team, and ranked fairly high in the standings of the J.League. The team featured such well-known players as Cesar Sampaio and Zinho, as well as national team goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki and past national team members Atsuhiro Miura, Hideki Nagai and Motohiro Yamaguchi. Not to mention a very young Yasuhito Endo.

Yet despite its great tradition, in 1998 the team's sponsors, Sato Kogyo and All Nippon Airways, announced suddenly that they were disbanding the team and sending all of the players to cross-town rival Yokohama Marinos. It is hard to describe the shock and anger of Flugels fans, who were asked by the clueless corporate bosses (with a straight face) to switch their support to Marinos. Perhaps the best comparison would be if Tottenham Hotspur fans were suddenly asked to convert to being Arsenal supporters, or long-time fans of the New York Mets being asked to root for the Yankees.

It goes without saying that the fans revolted. However, the backlash was far more powerful and emotional than anyone could have expected, particularly in traditionally peaceful, stoic Japan. Flugels fans vented their fury on the team sponsors, and even briefly took over the corporate offices of ANA while demanding that the team be revived. The national news media woke up to the story with as much shock as the corporate suits, but the story had momentum and soon the Flugels fan club revolt was all over the airwaves.

In the end, despite the powerful grassroots support for the team, the best the fan clubs were able to achieve was to convince the Japan Football Association to register them as a new JFL franchise. Fortunately, the team had won widespread popularity and publicity as a result of the fan revolt. Not all of the players were picked up by the neighbours across the city and many of the players who were not good enough to get contracts with J.League clubs, but were nevertheless good enough to play in J2 opted to stay with the team instead. Former German World Cup captain Pierre Littbarski agreed to serve as coach, and a cable TV channel offered to broadcast all of their matches. The combination of fan loyalty and high publicity was enough to support a team that was far above JFL standards.

League rules demand that a JFL team finish in second place or better for two seasons in a row in order to win promotion to the J2. For this reason, the road back to the J.League was not easy for Yokohama FC. However, the team had not wasted its opportunities. Yokohama FC not only won the league championship in its first two years in existence, but in 2000 the team finished undefeated, with 19 wins and two draws for the season. As a result, the team won promotion to J2 for the 2001 season.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix fable could not sustain the team forever. After rejoining the J2, Yokohama FC struggled to remain competitive, and in 2002 the team finished dead last in the division. Fan support from the old Flugels fan base could only remain stalwart for so long, and with so little to cheer about, the team's supporters slowly beginning to drift away. In 2004, Pierre Littbarsky returned to coach the team for a second stint, and his presence offered enough of a boost to morale that they moved into the upper half of the league table for a while, and were even in position to claim one of the three potential promotion slots. But the phoenix burned out too soon, and slipped to a disappointing eighth place in the final standings.

By the end of 2004, Yokohama FC began to recognize that the team was in a difficult spot -- destined to be the permanent second-best team in Yokohama, and with a fan base that was fractured between nostalgic old-timers and a few newcomers who wanted an alternative to F.Marinos The added "F" in the Yokohama F.Marinos name referrign to Flugels, of course - but that's another story). It was never going to be easy for a second division club to compete for loyalties in the same city as an established team that had been J1 champions, but there were many self-inflicted wounds as well. Yokohama FC had little hope of winning matches unless the team could start attracting more fans and thus making money. But it is hard to attract fans to an "alternative" team unless the team is successful, or at the very least, exciting to watch.

The team settled upon a strategy of signing of players who were big stars in their heyday, but who had reached the point where no J1 team was willing to offer them a contract. It proved to be successful enough that many other teams have imitated it, in subsequent years During the course of 2005, Yokohama signed Kazuyoshi "Kazu" Miura -- a move that attracted both media interest from the fanboy contingent and scorn from football purists -- as well as Yasunori Takada, Shigeyoshi Mochizuki, Motohiro Yamaguchi and Tetsuro Uki. With Shoji Jo and Kazuki Sato already on the roster, the team was beginning to look like the guest list of an "old-boys" reunion party for players from the 1994 national team. Ten years earlier, this lineup would have had an outside chance of finishing near the top of the J1, but the question was whether they still had the energy, a decade later, to produce a J2 promotion run. Kazu is still playing for Yokohama at age 52!

At first, things did not look good, with the team losing its opening match of 2006 and immediately firing the coach. But over the course of the season, the addition of a few youngsters to provide the energy to go with the veterans' experience, Yokohama FC gathered momentum as the season went on and climbed towards the top of the table. Yamaguchi and Jo, in particular, recaptured enough of their past form to carry the team at last to its long-awaited goal. In 2007, after a nine-year "resurrection", Yokohama FC reached J1.

Naturally, the dramatic history that underlies Yokohama FC earned the team a lot of sympathy, but the reality is that the "Resurrection" saga ended on the day that Yokohama FC claimed their J1 promotion spot. Many of the team's supporters today are people with no real memory of the Flugels era, and during the 2007 campaign there seemed to be a bit of a "tug of war" for the team's soul, between the last few old-timers and the core of Yokohama FC fans. Despite the thrill of finally achieving promotion in 2007, and an even greater celebration when FC defeated F.Marinos in the very first Yokohama Derby match since the reorganization, the team simply did not have the quality required to compete in the top-flight. They clinched relegation in record time, and the storybook saga of Yokohama Flugels was closed once and for all.

As they returned to the J2 in 2008, it was clear that the team was beginning an entirely new chapter in its history. The last remaining players from the Flugels era, Motohiro Yamaguchi and Atsuhiro Miura, both retired by the end of the 2008 season, drawing a line under the Flugels saga and leaving only vague historical memories of tragic valour. Nevertheless, Yokohama FC have proven that they can survive in Yokohama, even in the shadow of F.Marinos, so perhaps it is for the best that they are now turning their gaze away from the past, and towards a new future as Yokohama's "second team".

The 2008 season was quite a disappointment following the brief joy of a return to the top-flight. Considering how many of the team's core players were in their 30s, at the end of 2007, it isn't really much of a surprise that the team had to hold a clearance sale and start over from scratch. The team finished a disappointing 10th in J2 in 2008, but it did manage to clear away most of the old debris (with the exception of the stubborn old codger, "King Kazu") and lay the groundwork for a new start. The 2009 season provided a clear reflection of the degree to which the club had "cleared the decks". Yokohama finished 16th -- two spots above rock bottom.

It was not easy to find a silver lining in the clouds that hung over the club around this time. The one positive factor that one might identify was that Yokohama FC had finally closed the chapter on their status as "the former Flugels". It was now a team that could look to the future, rather than lingering poignantly over the memories of a long-lost golden age. But so long as the team still plays home to a greying ghost of the past -- in the form of Kazu -- it is difficult to really move on and start building a newer and more competitive club. "The King" has worked heroically to stay in shape, despite moving into his 40s and even his early 50s. But let's face it . . . when your team's main bragging point is that the oldest professional footballer in history is one of your strikers . . . 

 Yokohama drifted along like this for another decade, with a revolving door sequence of coaches, many of whom had played with Kazu. The team attracted a lot of other veterans in the final years of their careers, ranging from Masaru Kurotsu, Shinichi Terada, Tetsuya Okubo, Yuichiro Nagai, Toshihiro Matsushita and Yuki Matsushita to Kazunori Iio, An Yong-Hak, Yuta Minami, Yutaka Tahara, Leandro Domingues and Calvin Jong-a-Pin. What all of these players have in common is that they all put in a decade or two as icons at some club OTHER thanYokohama FC, before moving to what was . They may have had some positive influence, at least in publicity terms, but nobody expected them to help the once-proud club return to the top-flight.

It was not until 2018 that Yokohama FC finally climbed back into potential promotion territory. Their third-place finish that year was not enough to make the jump, but it did encourage management to give coach Araujo Tavares Edson a bit of additional cash, to bolster the roster in one last bid to help Kazu end his career in J1. With veterans like Daisuke Matsui and Takuya Matsuura  leading the way, and several younger prospects working their way into the lineup, Yokohama got off to a strong start in 2019. At midseason, sensing that this might be the year, the team convnced Shunsuke Nakamura to leave a sinking ship at Jubilo Iwata, to put the team over the top. Unfortunately, Kashiwa Reysol was far too strong that season, but Yokohama finished second, and secured their long-awaited ticked back to J1.

Looking at the roster, it is hard to imagine the Phoenix rising from the ashes to do anything other than make a swift return to the second division. Perhaps if the team puts all of the veterans out to pasture, they can scrap their way to a 15th or 16th place spot. But if the team's priority is to help Kazu become the oldest top-flight goalscorer in history, the Yokohama sideshow will remain exactly that.


Team Results for 1999-2001

Year Rank W D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (Kanto Lg) 1 16 2 3 3 57 32 +25
2000 (JFL) 1 18 1 2 0 63 24 +39
2001 (J2) 9 12 3 1 28 58 81 -23

Team Results for 2002-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2002 12 35 8 11 25 43 81 -38
2003 11 42 10 12 22 49 88 -39
2004 8 52 10 22 12 42 50 -8
2005 11 45 10 15 19 48 64 -16
2006 1 93 26 15 7 61 32 29
2007 (J1) 18 16 4 4 26 19 66 -47
2008 10 50 11 17 14 51 56 -5
2009 16 44 11 11 29 43 70 -27
2010 6 54 16 6 14 54 47 +7
2011 18 41 11 8 19 40 54 -14
2012  4 73 22 7 13 62 45 +17
2013  11 58 15 13 14 49 46 +3
2014  11 55 14 13 15 49 47 +2
2015  15 52 13 13 16 33 58 -25
2016  8 59 16 11 15 50 51 -1
2017 10 63 17 12 13 60 49 +11
2018 3 76 21 13 8 63 44 +19
2019 2 79 23 10 9 66 40 +26
2020 (J1) 15 33 9 6 19 38 60 -22