In a rural corner of Shizuoka prefecture a new community-owned MyFC competes in the Japan Football League (JFL), the nations’ semi-pro third tier. Sporting a website splashed with the slogan “From Fujieda to the World!” they harbour big ambitions. But in a part of the country neatly divided between Shimizu S-Pulse orange and Jubilo Iwata blue, is there room for a new kid on the block? Against this backdrop, what is the reality Fujieda MYFC must face in establishing a foothold in the local football culture, and how do their immediate prospects shape up?
At the end of May the J1 season began a seven week hiatus while the national team joined the Confederations Cup. As fans battled an ungodly time difference to follow the Samurai Blue in Brazil, there was no shortage of domestic action to occupy the weekends. The top tier may have pressed pause, but J2 was just getting into its stride. Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka were enjoying the limelight, putting space between themselves and the chasing pack, while one level further down the pyramid the JFL was also benefiting. Teams living in the shadow of top flight neighbours had an opportunity to break through the shade and appeal directly to those temporarily bereft of live football.
So it was that I found myself at the modest Citizen Ground, home to Fujieda MYFC. Situated between Shimizu and Iwata, Fujieda was once home to the club that would become Avispa Fukuoka. Stifled by their role as the meat in an S-Pulse Jubilo sandwich, in 1994 the then-Fujieda Blux upped sticks and headed south. In 2009 a local MyFC project arrived on the scene, modelled on the community ownership plan pioneered at England’s Ebbsfleet United. The subsequent purchase of Fujieda Nelson saw the birth of Fujieda MYFC.
Long before their maiden JFL season, MYFC had set out their stall as a team with aspirations. At the club’s inception former Shimizu and Japan defender Toshihide Saito was appointed player manager. A major coup while still in the prefectural leagues, by 2012 they were competing on the national stage. In August of that year the signing of former Brazil U20 international Kerlon demonstrated their ambition was far from sated. 2013 saw that sentiment underlined with the unveiling of S-Pulse legend Daisuke Ichikawa.
In recent seasons the JFL has grown polarised between company teams and those who have cut the corporate apron strings to aim for the J. League. As a result, the table top has become bottlenecked with teams illegible for promotion to J2. From 2014 J3 will give a home for those aspiring for J, and MYFC are eager to make the jump. Although the above mentioned Citizen Ground is little more than a training venue, the floodlit Fujieda Sports Complex Park boasts a main stand equipped to accommodate 5,000; on a par with some J1 stadia. Surrounding banking raises the capacity to 13,000. On the surface MYFC appear primed for the step up. Which brings us back to Blux. When they left for Fukuoka they made a loud and clear statement that, with Shimizu east and Iwata west, there was nowhere left for a third team to develop. What are MYFC doing differently that they may succeed in an environment largely unchanged from 1994?
Support is currently solid if not spectacular, with 1,500 crowds not uncommon. J1’s summer break may have brought a few extra through the turnstiles, but gates were not impacted in any major way; a solid basis is already in place. But one facet impossible to overlook is the large number of Shimizu supporters present. Whether through a scan of window stickers in the car park, or the assortment of orange accessories on bags and phones, S-Pulse supporters comprise a not insubstantial section of the Fujieda fan base. Consider both the manager and most famous player are ex Shimizu heroes, and the ties are unmistakable.
Circumstances may therefore conspire to create something of a false sense of security for MYFC. Separated by two divisions, no Shimizu Fujieda rivalry can yet be said to exist. Dual supporters can easily maintain a balancing act, but in considering the long term an obvious difficulty arises. Football in Fujieda rarely clashes with Shimizu home weekends, but if so, never on the same day. If the two should compete head to head, these fans would be faced with an impossible dilemma. Or perhaps not. The J. League may only be in its 21st season, but two years, much less two decades, is enough to cement affiliations.
This is not to suggest MYFC is a side project of S-Pulse fans, or that the club is overly reliant on borrowed support. The team has its own clear identity and culture. The signing section is always a solid pocket of purple. A full youth set up is in place, and MYFC is undoubtedly standing on its own two feet. Whereas Blux sought J1 football hard and fast, MYFC have a long term plan allowing them to take things slowly. Exploiting former Shimizu or Iwata stars is a key method by which to tap the region’s supply of J. League fans and exploit interest. Ultimately, the process should cultivate some of their own, purple-exclusive support.
The population of Fujieda reveals it to be one of the smaller cities aiming for the J. League, but average gate growth since 2009 suggests a solid three thousand would not be out of the question for a debut J3 season.
After interest stalled and backers fell away, Ebbsfleet United recently parted company with their MyFC owners. The unhappy ending to the original community ownership venture serves as a warning. Before aiming to emulate J1 neighbours, Fujieda must ensure they don’t fall at the same hurdle. Resisting the drop off in sponsors which killed the Ebbsfleet experiment must remain top priority; crucial especially for a club already burdened with a number of high earners. Significant inroads into orange and blue catchment areas need to remain a long term goal. The key at this time is baby steps, but a third team in Shizuoka does appear, if tentatively, sustainable.
J. League football is certainly not out of reach, but global ambitions notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that MYFC will be challenging for J1 in the foreseeable future. Having acclimatised to JFL and made midtable their own, a season or two of on-pitch development is still necessary, but J3 by the middle of the decade is not unrealistic. Operating at that higher level would then provide a valuable assessment of ambition with respect to reality.
Iwata and Shimizu may face no immediate threat to their current hegemony, but would do well to guard against complacency. Ask any Verdy Kawasaki supporter: situations can and will change. This is a major charm point of Japan’s developing football culture, and endeavours like Fujieda MYFC ensure there will be no stagnation any time soon.
By Barry Valder
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona