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Sports - Matsumoto Yamaga Football Club's season 2009

Matsumoto Yamaga have been promoted to the JFL. So, what does that mean?

To explain, here is a quick overview of the structure of Japanese football (or soccer if you please).

At the top of the pile is the J-League, which is fully professional and has two divisions cunningly called J1 and J2. In 2010 J1 will have 18 teams, and J2 19.

Beneath the professional J-League is the Japan Football League, or JFL. This consists of 18 teams, and can be described as semi-professional, or amateur. It's a national league, and at the moment it contains teams from Okinawa in the deep South right up to Akita in the far North.

And below the JFL there are 9 regional leagues. As 2009 kicked off, Yamaga were in the 8 team top division of the Hokushinetsu League which covers the prefectures of Nagano, Toyama, Niigata, Ishikawa and Fukui. This was generally regarded as the toughest of the regional leagues because of the number of teams in it who are aiming for the J-League, namely Yamaga, deadly rivals Nagano Parceiro, Zweigen Kanazawa and Saurcos Fukui. Adding complications were Japan Soccer College (JSC) who are unique in Japan for being a college aimed at producing professional footballers and who have a close relationship with J-1 Albirex Niigata, and their limitless funds.

Anyway, the champions of the short 14 game season would enter a complicated series of play-offs to go up to the JFL, but Yamaga blew it by losing to JSC in game 13. JSC went on to win the league, and take their place in the play-offs, while Yamaga trundled in in fourth place after losing game 14 to Kanazawa.

But there was a lifeline.

The end of season promotion play-offs need 16 teams in 4 groups of 4. These consist of the 9 regional league champions, a selection of 5 regional league runners-up selected using a formula known only to a mystic living in a cave somewhere in remote Wakayama, and the finalists of the All-Japan Amateur Football Cup. To become a finalist in the Amateur Cup Yamaga first had to win the Nagano prefecture Cup, which they did, and then had to be in the top three of the Hokushinetsu Amateur Cup. They finished as runners-up in that having lost to Kanazawa, with Nagano Parceiro also qualifying (Parceiro having been exempt from the Nagano Cup, being the previous year's holders).

That put them in the national Amateur Cup finals, a 32 team knockout competition held over 5 consecutive days. They disposed of a small Chiba team on day one, J-League FC Gifu's second team on day 2, although they needed extra time, and on day 3 they were within a minute of losing to Hitachi Tochigi Uva before heroic captain Yamazaki headed an equaliser, Yamaga then scraping through on penalties. That put them into the semi-finals, and one win away from the JFL play-offs. Standing in the way were deadly rivals Nagano Parceiro, but they were swept aside and Yamaga had made it to the play-offs, along with, inevitably, Kanazawa who they played with a weakened team on day 5, to win the cup.

In the play-offs they travelled down to Tottori to play, and win, 3 games in 3 days. That put them in the final group of play-offs in Matsumoto, where a position in the top 2 of 4 would put them up. Despite losing on penalties to, again, Kanazawa on day one, they regrouped to win their other 2 games, and promotion.

So what next?

The JFL is an 18 team league, with teams playing each other home and away, so there will be 17 home games in Matsumoto's Alwin stadium next year. The season will run from the middle of March until the end of November, with a break somewhere in August or September. Yamaga's next target will be to get into J2. To do this they will need to finish in the top 4 of the JFL, while having an appropriate stadium (no problem there), and having the necessary finances. They also need to have a certain number of players on professional contracts, a manager with the correct coaching qualifications, and support from the local government. They will also need an average attendance of 3000. Next year it will probably cost about 1000 yen to see a game (the JFL norm) although tickets bought in advance are cheaper.

And how about the opposition?

The JFL is a strange mix of amateur company teams, club teams with J-League aspirations, a reserve side of a J-League team, and a university (universities usually play in their own separate leagues which do not form part of the Japan football pyramid). The company teams, such as Honda and Sony Sendai have no intention of turning professional, and so cannot go up to the J-League. It's a rule of the J-League that member clubs must be companies in their own right, so a Honda team would need to be relaunched and restructured , and Honda have said that they have no intention of doing that.

Of the club teams Tottori have finished 5th for the last two years, thus narrowly failing to go up to the J-League, and will start as favourites next year. Nagasaki have a J-League plan but they have a lot of work to do to get the necessary finance in place, and the stadium they use is nowhere near Nagasaki city, so getting support is a problem. Machida, in Tokyo, have plans to go up, but don't have a suitable stadium. FC Ryukyu down in Okinawa have proved to be surprisingly weak since joining the JFL, stumbling along at the bottom, despite having former Japan manager Phillipe Trousier as their general manager. A rival could be up in Akita, where the company team TDK has been relaunched as Blaublitz Akita, which probably has the most stupid name of any of the teams in the League.

So things are looking good for Yamaga. First they need to get associate J-League membership, which will mean they are eligible to go up. And they need support, so go and watch them. And wear something green.

And a postscript:

Nothing was mentioned about the Emperor's Cup. This is a national knockout competition featuring teams from high schools up to J1 teams, with the final held on New Year's Day in the National Stadium in Tokyo. And this year Yamaga became the very first regional league team to defeat a J1 team when they beat Urawa Reds 2-0 in Matsumoto in front of a record crowd of 14,000. That has to be the biggest cup shock in Japan's football history. So with that, the All Japan Amateur Cup and promotion to the JFL in 2009, 2010 will have a lot to live up to. Come on you Gans!

* After 2011 season, Yamaga won a race to go up to the J2 Football League. See these blog articles.

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