Monday, 21 June 2021

 


FC Gifu offers an interesting and unique example of how to create and develop a team. The southern half of Gifu prefecture is a jumble of rather heavily settled "bedroom towns" (suburbs) created in recent years to house the largely blue-collar work force of greater Nagoya, dotted with a few small urban centres with histories going back over a thousand years, as well as the occasional sweeping expanse of rice and vegetable cultivation. in other words, Gifu has much the same relationship to Nagoya that Chiba has to Tokyo, except that the sense of rivalry (or even antipathy) between the two is even stronger, based on hundreds of years of bloody history.

Given this background, it has always been rather surprising that Gifu took as long as it did to spawn a J.League team of its own. The fact that Nagoya Grampus plays home games at Mizuho Stadium, which is quite close to Gifu, seems an inadequate explanation. After all, Japan's other major cities -- Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and even Saitama -- all have two local teams as well as additional teams representing major adjoining cities or suburbs (such as Kawasaki, Kashiwa, Shonan, Kobe and Kyoto). It always seemed odd that the large semi-urban sprawl to the north, west and south of Nagoya never gave birth to any teams with J.League ambitions. Until 2001, the most significant club team in the area was Gifu Stickleback, and even they were just a tiny, weakly supported group taking part in the prefectural league.

But in 2001, Gifu native and veteran J.Leaguer Yasuyuki Moriyama and several childhood friends (one of whom played for Stickleback) were out drinking, and Moriyama's companions began grousing about the fact that Gifu fans had to support Nagoya Grampus, because they didnt have a team of their own. Moriyama sensed that he was being teased, and protested that he would love to play for a Gifu team, rather than Grampus, but there wasnt any such club to employ him. "What about Stickleback?" he was asked, largely in jest. There was a long silence as the veteran striker's eyes slowly began to grow wider and more animated. The seed of FC Gifu had been planted,

Unlike most other "grassroots" teams, which generally are created by devoted fans and amateur players, and steadily attract better and better players, FC Gifu is largely a case of a group of players walking in and telling a local community: "we want to be your local team". Though he probably could have played in the J.League for several more years, Moriyama left Grampus in late 2002, and convinced several other former teammates to join him at Gifu Stickleback (soon to be renamed FC Gifu). For the next two years, the team won every match they played, by an AVERAGE of slightly over 3 goals per game.

In 2004 the team advanced to the Tokai Regional League Division 2, and though the results were not QUITE as impressive, the team continued to make steady progress, advancing to the Tokai Regional League Division 1 with a dramatic performance on the last day of the season. They entered the contest level on points but a four-goal difference behind their closest rival, Fuyo. Since Fuyo won their final match 2-1, Gifu needed a six-goal victory to earn promotion. In a nail-biting display, Gifu fought to a 6-0 advantage, but with time running down, conceded a last-minute penalty kick to the opponents. As Gifu fans covered their eyes in agonized suspense, the kicker sent his shot off the right post, to give Gifu a 6-0 win and promotion to the Tokai Regional League Division 1.

In 2006, Moriyama used his connections to lure other aging former J.Leaguers, including keeper Suguru Hino (Gamba), defenders Naoki Hiraoka (Grampus), Tetsuya Ito and Takayuki Komine (FC Tokyo), and even the still-youthful former U-20 striker Atsushi Katagiri, to help make a bid for JFL promotion. Again, Gifu struggled through the season and seemed to be on the brink of falling short of promotion, after losing the final round of the Nationwide Regional League Championships. But again fate intervened and Gifu advanced to the JFL when the two Sagawa Kyubin clubs merged, opening up a second promotion spot.

FC Gifu's seemingly charmed existence continued as they entered the JFL for the first time, in 2007. The financial backing of companies in the Gifu area, together with Moriyama's wide-ranging contacts, allowed them to bring in the additional players needed to make them a promotion candidate, including former Grampus and Sanfrecce striker Jorginho (the younger brother of Ueslei) and former Gamba striker Hiromi Kojima. Though many of the team's core players were aging veterans, their experience coupled with a rapidly growing fan base and an impressive list of financial and organizational backers carried the team to third place in the JFL, on the first attempt. In addition, a bit of mild pressure from local business leaders helped the club win J.League approval as an associate member, and as a result, in December 2007 the team made the final leap into the ranks of professional football. At last, Gifu had its very own J.League team.

Naturally, it is a lot harder for the club to sustain their past pace of advancement, now that they are finally in the professional ranks. Gifu managed to finish in 13th place, three spots out of the cellar -- not exactly a triumphant start to its J.League existence, but better than most teams in their first J2 campaign. However, the team has remained at essentially the same level since joining the J2, and never really manages a consistent run of success. While fans can surely take pride in the tremendous effort and impetus which carried the team from virtually nowhere to the J2 in a mere five seasons, the club has a lot of work to do if they want to make progress up the J2 table.

One positive development for Gifu was the renovation of Nagaragawa Stadium, which took place during the 2010 season (for about six months the team was playing home matches at a tiny, 5000-seat ground called "Nagaragawa Meadow"). Now that the main Nagaragawa Stadium is complete, the team can expect improved crowds and hopefully, a better revenue stream. This will be an important factor in making the the transition to a level of competitiveness, and beginning the next phase of club development.

After several years of propping up the J2 table, Gifu made its first significant move to bolster performance in 2014, with the selection of former Japan NT midfielder, and naturalized Japanese citizen Ruy Ramos as manager. Since the team has always been run on a shoestring budget, Ramos could do little to change its fortunes overnight, but he did convince some aging former NT members, like Alex Santos and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, to join the team and help instill some tactical awareness in the players. Gifu responded by posting its best results ever in 2014.

However, fan support did not follow, and the team dipped back to 20th place in 2015. The well-known veterans moved on. There followed a gradual deterioration which can only be blamed on organizational ineptitude. After years of insisting that the team mascot was the holly leaf on its team crest, Gifu finally deciced to jump on the bandwagon, and used a "participatory" model to choose a mascot. Not only did they accept some very amateurish entries, but the voting for a final mascot was so ineptly handled that it produced this monstrosity:

You can surely guess how long-time fans responded. First of all . . . you cannot be serious. Second . . . since I can see that you ARE serious, WHAT THE **** is it supposed to be? Well, according to the team, it is light, reflecting on the surface of the water. Oh.... And its name is "Minamo" 

 That one incident can pretty well sum up what happened to Gifu FC in the latter half of the teens. In the end, even the most valiant coaching efforts of former Sanfrecce, Ventforet and Sanga boss Takeshi Oki could not save them, and they stumbled through the cellar door into J3, at the close of last season. 

 What next? Well, Gifu definitely has the population and the facilities to support a decent J2 team. In fact, if they used resources as effectively, and selected personnel as carefully as teams like Ventforet Kofu and Matsumoto Yamaga, Gifu could perhaps make it as far as the J1. But to do so, they need some more initiative from team management, and better connection to the genuine fan base. Without that, gimmicks cannot alter your status in the league heirarchy.

With a large stadium and plenty of experience, Gifu should be able to return to J2 next year, and are the odds-on favourite to win the J3 title this year. At least that will give them something to put in the torphy cabinet. Looking ahead, though, Gifu needs to rethink its entire approach.

And the mascot might be a good place to start.


Team Results for 2001-07

Year Rank W D L G.Dif
2001 (Gifu League) 2 8 1 1 --
2002 (Gifu League) 1 10 0 0 +36
2003 (Gifu League) 1 10 0 0 +30
2004 (Tokai Lg. Div II) 3 8 0 6 +1
2005 (Tokai Lg. Div II) 2 8 5 1 +19
2006 (Tokai Lg. Div I) 1 12 2 0 +43
2007 (JFL) 3 17 9 8 +14

Team Results for 2008-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2008 13 42 10 12 20 41 69 -28
2009 12 62 16 14 21 62 72 -10
2010 14 45 13 6 17 32 45 -13
2011 20 24 6 6 26 39 83 -44
2012 21 35 7 14 21 27 55 -28
2013 21 37 9 10 23 37 80 -43
2014 17 49 13 10 19 54 61 -7
2015 20 43 12 7 23 37 71 -33
2016 20 43 12 7 23 47 71 -24
2017 18 46 11 13 18 56 68 -12
2018 20 42 11 9 22 44 62 -18
2019 22 30 7 9 26 33 78 -45
2020 6 56 16 8 10 50 39 +11