JapanIrrespective of region, culture or history, it’s one of football’s constants. The meeting of two teams sharing a common catchment area can act as the ultimate source of pride or shame. Those 90 minutes alone have the power to overshadow an otherwise positive season, or redeem one otherwise nondescript.

When importing foreign concepts Japan is often happy to tweak and refine, and the derby has proved no different. Attempts to generate interest with billings such as the Orange Derby, Shimizu vs Niigata, two teams sharing a  common colour but 300 miles apart, can be put aside as transparent marketing endeavours. But common to any league is when two or more clubs straddle the same district, the struggle for dominance produces the very best in football drama.

When the J. League began it initially brought with it just one derby. It was however, a triple-header. Yokohama Marinos, Yokohama Flügels and Verdy Kawasaki were all based within a 10 mile radius, vying for both support and Kanagawa prefecture bragging rights. As new teams joined the fledgling league, Japan’s football culture gained a wider spread of geographic rivalries. Founding members Gamba Osaka, Shimizu S-Pulse and JEF United soon had their own local match ups with newcomers Cerezo Osaka, Júbilo Iwata and Kashiwa Reysol respectively.

The establishment of a second division in 1999, and the realities of relegation, led to some embryonic rivalries being put on ice. The Osaka city and Chiba prefecture face offs have both been on enforced sabbatical at various stages, while conversely, J2 has helped cultivate enmity within the Tohoku derby, contested by Sendai and Yamagata, and Fukuoka derby, between former top flight Avispa Fukuoka and new team Kitakyushu.

While the invisible hand of promotion and relegation acts as a natural force, a more menacing influence has been felt during the J. League’s short history. Football’s natural order is rarely, if ever, more jarringly disrupted than during relocations or mergers. Between 1998 and 2001 Kanagawa prefecture saw its original trio of derbies forever broken up in those most brutal of circumstances.

Natural Born Rivalries

At the end of 1998, amidst furious scenes from both sets of supporters, Yokohama Flügels were dissolved into arch rivals Marinos. The merger of the clubs, while an unimaginable upheaval for supporters, ultimately proved the genesis of one of the most organic rivalries in the country. Flügels supporters rejected the suggestion from above that they should simply support Marinos, instead choosing to create a phoenix team. Playing at the same stadium and supported by the same people, Yokohama FC can be viewed as a continuation of the Flügels, which the F in Yokohama F. Marinos is purported to represent, and which the Marinos board insisted lived on within their club.

After working up the pyramid, Yokohama FC was in 2007 able to reignite the Yokohama Derby. During an albeit brief spell in J1, the upstarts underlined their arrival by beating F. Marinos 1-0 at Mitsuzawa Stadium, former home of the Flügels. The fairytale was shattered in the return match as F. Marinos trounced FC 8-1. However, with the occasion attracting 54,000 spectators, the biggest gate in the derby’s history, the legitimacy of the fixture was without question.

Recent match ups, while restricted to cup meetings, still provide an authentic derby day atmosphere, replete with a mutual sense of superiority. Borne on the one side out of righteous moral struggle, and on the other from a burgeoning collection of silverware, and historical authority.

Tokyo Verdy Kawasaki 1969

Verdy Kawasaki, the third of the original Kanagwa trio, was in 2001 uprooted, moved north to the capital, and renamed Tokyo Verdy 1969. Fans initially flocked to see the team in their new surroundings and a budding derby with FC Tokyo looked set to take root. FC Tokyo had risen from non-league to beat Verdy to the J1 punch. Gaining promotion the previous year, they had already managed to carve up the majority of local support.

After Verdy’s drop to second tier football in 2006 many new followers deserted the team and the capital derby has largely been off the landscape since. Meanwhile back in Kanagawa, Kawasaki Frontale emerged as a natural successor to Verdy, taking up residence in their vacant Todoroki Stadium and forging a rivalry with Yokohama F. Marinos.

Real Shizuoka?

The longest successively running local face off is contested in the nation’s historical cradle of soccer prowess. Shizuoka prefecture’s players had long been overly represented in both club football and the national team. So, when the J. League was accepting founding member applications, both Shimizu FC and Yamaha Corporation had designs on a prestigious Original Ten spot. That the rechristened Shimizu S-Pulse got the nod over Yamaha’s newly independent Júbilo Iwata is a fact that still continues to wrangle with Iwata fans.

Iwata were accepted into the league in 1994 and each team has enjoyed an uninterrupted spell in the top flight, fostering a healthy rivalry spanning 42 games. A national powerhouse around the turn of the century, Iwata overshadowed Shimizu’s own modest successes, something which was to culminate in 1999. With the season contested over two stages, Iwata had claimed the first and Shimizu the second. At the end of the year Shimizu sat atop the combined league table sixteen points superior to Iwata. Nevertheless, under the rules of the time the two met in the Suntory Championship season climax. All square over two legs, penalty kicks would crown Iwata champions.

The imbalance in silverware is something which Iwata are eager to remind their neighbours, exacerbating especially Shimizu’s pain at, to their minds, the questionable legitimacy of that near miss in 1999. Reciprocated claims of eminence are the basis of any rivalry, and while recent seasons have consistently seen Shimizu the better supported side, they are yet to trouble Iwata’s trophy haul. Further antagonism was injected in 2011 after an ill advised Iwata banner aimed at S-Pulse’s Iranian-American manager incited violent scenes on the terraces. Perversely, Shimizu received the greater sanctions, adding an additional layer to the tie’s complexity.

The Future

All football fans are familiar with the derby-as-cup-final where anything can and does happen. Urawa Red Diamonds may have the league, league cup, Emperor’s Cup and Asian Champions League all to their name in recent years, but against city rivals, the newer and, as they would happily admit, smaller Omiya Ardija, Urawa have managed a paltry two victories in their last thirteen meetings.

Since 1992 the Original Ten has blossomed to forty, stiffening the competition for a shrinking number of supporters. J1 ever-presents Kashima and Nagoya currently enjoy big brother relationships with lower league Mito Hollyhock and FC Gifu respectively, but as the years pass by and the balance of power inevitably shifts, who would bet against these family ties one day being strained or broken?

Marketing departments will by nature attempt to create interest where little exists, but authentic rivalries are rarely the result of anything other than natural evolution. As Inter was born from AC Milan, Yokohama FC sprung from their greatest enemies. Where club origins remain distinct, local cultures generate their own dynamic of antagonism. Cerezo Osaka, not unlike Manchester City, have long claimed to represent their home city more legitimately than their more successful and renowned neighbours.

Ultimately, the purest process with which to cultivate an explosive derby day atmosphere is the passage of time. Controversial episodes and contentious incidents accumulate gradually over the years to give that crucial needle and edge. As new as the J. League’s derbies may be, many already contain essential back stories of struggle, injustice, pain, and glory. Watching their mythologies and legends expand in the coming decades will be a fascinating journey.

By Barry Valder

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona