Wednesday, 02 December 2020

 


Fagiano Okayama is a relatively new team, created in 2004 with the specific aim of eventually achieving promotion to the J.League and bringing football to Okayama prefecture. However, the team does have antecedents, in the "River Free Kickers" (RFK) Okayama team which was a member of the Okayama prefecture division 1 at the time. RFK was initially formed in 1975, and played in the Okayama prefectural league throughout its existence, never achieving anything of real importance. Fagiano Okayama's organizers convinced RFK to serve as the "foundation" of the new team, so that it would not have to start its climb from the very bottom of the amateur league ladder. However, RFK only contributed a handful of players to the new team, and an entirely separate management corporation was organized, so essentially 2004 should be viewed as the team's "birth date".

Fagiano takes its name from the Italian word for "Pheasant", reflecting the team's choice of the Japanese Pheasant as its mascot. After its formation and entry to the Okayama League Division 1, Fagiano made quick progress up the amateur league ladder in the next few seasons, climbing to the Chugoku League division 2 in 2005 and then to division 1 in 2006. While not a remarkable achievement on its own (the Chugoku league is not one of the most competitive of Japan's regional groupings), in organizational terms the club was growing rapidly. It obtained strong support from local businesses and attendances climbed to levels that even J2 teams would consider respectable (a season high of 6,831 fans on September 24, 2006). However, the team's first bid at promotion to the JFL fell short, as Fagiano finished third in the Nationwide Regional League Championship Tournament.

In 2007, however, Fagiano again cruised to a league championship, posting a perfect record of 17-0-0, and continued to draw healthy crowds after settling in to the recently refurbished Momotaro Stadium. This time, the club finished the year with a rush, and the momentum carried it through the Nationwide Regional League Championship Tournament in first place, and claiming its spot in the JFL. As has been the case with several other clubs with established histories but new and highly ambitious goals, once the bandwagon got rolling everyone in the region decided to jump on board. Thus, while Fagiano entered the 2008 season as the JFL's "new face", their support in the stands and competitiveness on the pitch was a match for any of the more established clubs.

In addition to the strong local support -- both financial and emotional -- that Fagiano received from fans in Okayama, the team made some very keen moves during the winter break in early 2008 to set the stage for a concerted bid for promotion. Most importantly the team hired coach Satoshi Tezuka, a long-time assistant coach at Bellmare and the man who led Thespa Kusatsu into the J.League, to handle both the players and to guide the team's overall strategy for earning a spot in the professional ranks. Though Tezuka had only a few former J.Leaguers to provide experience, Fagiano already boasted a lot of young talent from the Okayama area. At the end of 2007, few observers thought that the team was ready to be an immediate J2 candidate, and this may have been one of the reasons why the League was a bit sceptical when Fagiano applied for immediate associate membership in March of 2008. But the packed terraces at Momotaro Stadium seemed to win over the sceptics by mid-season, and as the JFL entered the second half of its season, Fagiano were clearly making a charge on the pitch, as well.

The final month of the season was a period of nail-biting suspense, not only for Fagiano but also for their near neighbors Gainare Tottori. Though both Tochigi SC and Kataller Toyama were fairly well ensconced in second and third place, the two teams from western Honshu remained neck and neck in the battle to claim fourth place -- and the last ticket to a J2 berth. On November 15 Fagiano claimed an away victory at Musashino while Gainare tumbled to a 3-0 loss at the hands of Sagawa Printing, putting Okayama two points in front with two matches left in the season. The following week both clubs drew their matches, and Okayama fans trembled at the thought of travelling to Toyama on the last week of the season to face the powerful Kataller, while Gainare -- with a superior goal difference -- took on the University students of Ryutsu Keizai. Unless the Pheasants could manage an away win, Gainare would have a chance to overtake them, and snatch away their dreams of J.League football in 2009.

On November 30, Fagiano fans accounted for at least one-third of the large crowd at Toyama Stadium, where the locals were preparing to celebrate their team's coronation as a J2 club. The two teams battled up and down the pitch, but despite a valiant effort, all the Pheasants could manage was a 1-1 draw. As the final whistle sounded, players and fans alike stood in agonized silence, waiting to hear the results from Ibaraki. At last, the PA announcer came on, and drew a big cheer from the home fans with his words of congratulations to Kataller for fulfilling the final requirement for J2 membership.

"We also want to thank all of the Fagiano fans who came here today" . . . the announcer continued, pausing for a moment to increase the suspense " . . . and we hope to see you all again next season when . . . " The rest of the announcement was drowned out in cheers of triumph from both sets of fans, as the scoreboard flashed the news of Gainare's 0-2 defeat at RKU.

And so the Plucky Pheasants from Okayama began a new era in club history. The prospect of local rivalries with nearby Hiroshima and, in time, with Tottori on the other side of the mountains, suggests that there will be plenty of reasons for even more fans in Okayama to jump on the bandwagon. Although the team finished dead last in their first J.League season, that was no real surprise to folks who saw the roster at the start of the year. Indeed, in its first few seasons Okayama has earned a dubious reputation, from its habit of building a squad of some 35-50 players, half of whom are relegated to the "Okayama Reserves" team after a week or two. This practice makes their annual team photo look like something from a high school yearbook - as if sheer quantity could make up for a lack of quality. It also is a source of real annoyance to those who operate J.League-related websites -  the "current roster" of players registered as members of the J2 team seems to change almost every week!

Although the team continues to list more players in their preseason squad than any other J2 team, Fagiano has become a bit more "professional" about their personnel policies, in correlation to improvement in their league performance. Okayama may still be one of the new kids on the block, but the city and surrounding prefecture are nearly as populous as neighboring Hiroshima, where a league champion has been cultivated. Okayama does suffer from the curse of all "permanent residents" of the J2. While they have the finances to pick up some experienced veterans when needed, their main sources of youth have been local high schools and the Fagiano B team. As soon as youngsters like this begin to deliver results, some J1 club comes along and snatches them away. 

One strategy that Fagiano has pursued in recent years has been to pick up talented youngsters on loan, wiuth a promise to give them plenty of playing time and a chance to blossom. Several such acquisitions have succeeded brilliantly ... but only temporarily. As a result, the team's performances have been unstable from year to year, reflecting the prowess (or lack thereof) of young prospects on loan from other teams. Players such as Kengo Kawamura in 2011 and Shinya Yajima in 2016 arrive in Okayama, spend a year or two establishing themselves as key contributors, and then go "home", leaving the Pheasants crippled and unable to remain aloft. During this development period, Fagiano made some changes to their corporate design, such as changing the logo

     

The 2016 season marked an important watershed as Fagiano was able to take part in the promotion playoffs for the first time ever. Unfortunately, once Yajima left the team went through the same old cycle. But following the lull, Fagiano are now back on the rise again. Last year's rental -- striker Kazune Kubota from Kashima Antlers -- seems interested in making a more permanent home in Okayama, while several local products are finding core spots in the team as they reach their mid-20s. Only time will tell if this is a sign that the team is moving in the direction of longer term competitiveness, or whether this is just one more part of the up-down cycle.

A lot will depend on how successful the team is in keeping talent in the fold over a stretch of several years. If they can convince the best of the youngsters to forego a move to a J1 club, they might even manage a brief stint in the J1 themselves, though sustained success is probably still several years off.


Team Results for 2004-08

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2004 (Okayama Div II) 1 - - - - - - -
2005 (Okayama Div I) 1 - - - - - - -
2006 (Chugoku Lg) 1 35 11 1 2 62 16 +46
2007 (Chugoku Lg) 1 42 14 0 0 77 3 +74
2008 (JFL) 4 60 17 9 8 63 43 +20

Team Results for 2009-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2009 18 36 8 12 31 40 84 -44
2010 17 32 8 8 20 27 51 -24
2011 13 48 13 9 16 43 58 -15
2012 8 65 17 14 11 41 34 +7
2013 12 56 13 17 12 52 48 +4
2014 8 61 15 16 11 52 48 +4
2015 11 54 12 18 12 40 35 +5
2016 6 65 17 14 11 58 44 +14
2017 13 55 13 16 13 44 49 -5
2018 15 53 14 11 17 39 43 -4
2019 9 65 18 11 13 49 47 +2