Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Playing To The Vissel

The Vissel Kobe club badge (via Wikipedia)

Now that we've all had time to digest the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers, I can tell the tale of a miracle which actually occurred a month before the festive season even kicked off. Vissel Kobe won the J-League title courtesy of a 2-1 win over Nagoya Grampus, and in so doing became the first ever promoted team to win the country's top division. Remarkably, their story begins as early as 1995, when the entity formerly known as Kawasaki Steel Soccer Club reached an agreement to move to Kobe and turn professional, with the aim of eventually sealing a J-League berth, having previously been in the semi-pro Second Division.

 



Their first season in the professional ranks was spent in the Japan Football League, essentially Division One of the country's league system. A second place finish, not in itself enough to get them promoted, came with a large dollop of fortune in that champions Honda FC refused to go pro and give up their corporate backing, giving Vissel (a combination of victory and vessel) their chance to make it in the big leagues, the J-League system itself then still in its infancy.



After flirting with bankruptcy, 2004 saw the club move towards something like the model still in operation to this day when Hiroshi Mikitani, president of the Crimson Group, stepped in to buy the Ushi (Cows) and signed İlhan Mansiz from Besiktas, off the back of his performances with Turkey on Japanese soil at the 2002 World Cup. If he'd hoped the fans might forgive him for changing their previously black and white shirts to crimson, the gambit backfired as Mansiz played just three games before a knee injury and hastily swapped the Land of the Rising Sun for Germany and an even shorter spell with Hertha Berlin...



Following a few seasons of relative stability Vissel were relegated in 2005/06 after finishing bottom of the league, a third place finish in the J2 League enough to get them back up after beating Avispa Fukuoka. Though they'd finish up in the bottom half of the league every season from 2007-11 before dropping down again for 2011/1. A second place finish behind Gamba Osaka was enough to bounce them straight back up before the Crimson Group sold up and the club passed into the hands of Rakuten- perhaps better known as the former shirt sponsor for Barcelona.



Keen to make a statement signing, they went for Lukas Podolski from Galatasaray, this particular foray into the Turkish market working out rather better as he managed to stick around far longer than the ill-fated Mansiz and managed seventeen goals from sixty appearances. Two of those arrived on his league début against Omiya Ardija, and his final act after around three seasons was to help deliver a first major piece of silverware in the form of the 2019 Emperor's Cup, the first game played at the new national stadium in Tokyo seeing Kashima Antlers swept aside.



The new owners would make good on more than a few Spanish contacts to follow the Podolski signing with those of Andres Iniésta from Barcelona and David Villa from New York City. The striker stayed for just the one season before retiring, the Emperor's Cup final his last game as he signed off on twenty-nine appearances and thirteen goals from his Asian adventure, Iniesta spending around four campaigns in Japan and managing twenty-six goals from one hundred and thirty-four appearances.



A first Japanese Super Cup would follow, after beating Yokohama F. Marinos, the spur for their then highest ever J-League finish of third, prior to the sealing of their first title five months after Iniesta's departure...



Quite the boost too for the J-League's own rather ambitious hundred year vision, to have exactly one hundred professional clubs in the country by its own hundredth season in 2092! It was being discussed as far back as 2014, then- league chairman Mitsuru Murai granting an interview to Japan Today and setting out his determination.



It would seem even after a World Cup on home soil the club game still needed something of a helping hand, increasing attendances his first aim-



“Currently, the average attendance per game in J1 is about 17,000. We want to get it up over the 20,000 level. To do this, we need to improve the level of play to make games more appealing to fans. That takes time because we don’t have big names in our league, like Messi or Ronaldo, for example. “



But Juan Mata became the latest Spaniard to pull on the Vissel shirt in ‘helping’ them to their momentous first league title- though he made just one appearance as a substitute, his cameo in a 2-0 defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima still enough to get him a winner's medal!



And signings like his are, it would seem, a key part of the long term plan.



“The aim was always for vast expansion. By encouraging the creation of clubs in each of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures– and thus aiming to reduce the dependency on company ownership, a la baseball – the number of fully professional clubs has grown to sixty across three tiers – that’s more than in France, for example. Neither is this football as purely strategic endeavour; communities are being bound to clubs to create a nascent cultural heritage.

 

Japan’s export revolution is – principally and unsurprisingly – founded upon rapid investment. The Japanese Football Association made public their intention to win the World Cup by 2050 (when the J-League was formed in 1992, this was originally a 100-year goal), and to make that even vaguely realistic the quality of the domestic league needed to a) improve quickly, and b) become extremely effective at developing talent as well as attracting it.

 

The FA and the J1 League brought prefectures, associations, clubs, coaches, universities and schools together to work for a common good.”



So said ‘I newspaper’ in its own report on the beginning phase of a longer- term vision, which Vissel's “doing a Leicester” should draw further attention to.

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