Friday, 04 December 2020


 Kyoto Sanga can trace its history back to the very earliest phase of Japanese football history, yet even during the amateur era, it remained more "amateurish" than most rivals. The team from Kyoto only set its sights on being a professional club at the start of the J.League era. It was originally founded in 1922, as the university club team of Kyoto Teacher's University. In this guise, Kyoto participated in a number of national (Emperor's Cup) tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s. With the formation of the Japan Soccer League in 1973, the team entered the JSL second division, but retained its character as a university club team. Only with the formation of the J.League, in 1993, did the club restructure itself as a professional team in order to be eligible to aim for J.League status. It was accepted as one of the initial members of the new JFL (the informal "second division" league below the J.League), and took the name Kyoto Purple Sanga.

The word "Sanga" is a sanskrit term meaning "group" or "club", whereas the purple describes the colour of the team uniforms, which is also an imperial colour reflecting Kyoto's status as Japan's ancient imperial capital city. Although the team retains the same basic color scheme, somewhere around the mid-00s local fans began to agitate for a "simpler" name that would roll off the tongue a bit easier. As a result, the "Purple" was officially dropped in 2007 to leave the current name, Kyoto Sanga.

Kyoto's improvement from university club team to top JFL squad was rapid. The team improved from 10th place in 1993 to 5th in 1994 and 2nd in 1995. The second place finish that year won it a promotion to the J.League, though this would prove to be a curse, more than a blessing. Kyoto's university roots meant that it had only very limited home-town support. In the early years of the J.League, the sport was so faddish that any team could draw crowds, but by 1996, the fad was fading and only dedicated fans continued to attend matches. Kyoto's gate was miserable, from its very first year in the top division. With no money to attract top players, its performance was no better. Kyoto never finished higher than 9th in any individual stage, and spent most of its time in the cellar of the league. Naturally, the birth of J2 and the threat of being relegated to second-class status suddenly became a major concern.

Though the team narrowly escaped relegation in the inaugural year of J2, poor attendance figures and the resulting lack of club revenues eventually took their toll, and Kyoto was relegated in 2000. Over the next decade the team's ups and downs were regular. For ten years, since the birth of the J2, there were only two seasons in which the team had not been either promoted or relegated. Naturally, this up-and-down existence left fans a bit bemused, and the team in an unsettled state of semi-turmoil.

Following the team's initial relegation to J2 in 2001, Kyoto was able to concentrate its energies on building a solid base for the team, and with a lower level of competition to face, the club was also able to get its financial condition back in order. Though many of the top players left for other teams, Kyoto still retained a core of talented young players that provided a solid base on which to build a team for the future. Kyoto hired Gert Engels, who was formerly the coach for Yokohama Flugels in their final two years as a team, and he proved to be a master at developing young player talent and motivating his team. This allowed Purple Sanga to return to J1 after just one year in the lower tier. Unfortunately, in one area the team did NOT benefit from relegation. As a team that has always lacked grassroots support and a large fan base, the team's attendance levels fell even further as a J2 member, despite the fact that the team was now winning matches, Nishikyogoku Stadium remained a lonely place to play.

Purple Sanga achieved some positive results in 2002, finishing 5th in the league over the entire season (6th place in the 1st Stage and 7th in the 2nd Stage), and thus held their position in the top-flight division for an unusual two years in a row. With talented youngsters like Daisuke Matsui and Korean Park Ji-sung leading the way, Sanga closed out the year with an impressive run to the Emperor's Cup title. However, this proved to be a temporary reprieve, and it would be another six years before they again managed to stay in the top division for two consecutive seasons. The following year they were back to their old inconsistent selves, and were relegated yet again. The rebuilding process had to start all over again, as key players like Matsui, Park and Teruaki Kurobe moved on to bigger things. This time, it took two seasons before they could claw their way back into the J1, at the end of 2005.

Unfortunately, their third stint in J1 was no more successful than previous visits. This time Sanga failed to even make a good run at maintaining their J1 spot, and were relegated immediately. Fans did their best to put a positive spin on the situation, by pointing out that the team had a chance to vie for an unprecedented third J2 title. They failed at this hurdle, but did manage to claim a promotion spot once again after winning a promotion-relegation series against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Having been through the old up-down-up-down cycle for the better part of a decade, Kyoto approached the 2008 season with greater care and determination than ever before. The club started off by extending the strategy of cultivating experienced veterans which helped them climb out of J2 in 2007. Yutaka Akita, who joined the club as a player in 2007 and stayed on as an assistant coach in 2008, convinced his former Kashima Antlers teammate Atsushi Yanagisawa that Kyoto would be a good place to close out his career. Sanga also convinced Brazilian defender Sidiclei -- who started his J1 career at Kyoto back in the late 90s -- to come back for an encore performance. Other veterans like Yuto Sato and Takaaki Tokushige padded out the roster and provided Kyoto with the depth to escape the relegation threat in 2008, and for only the second time since relegation was introduced, maintain a J1 spot. The 2009 season was similar in many respects; Kyoto struggled throughout the campaign, and had a terrible record away from home, but they managed to do enough to maintain their J1 spot for a third consecutive season.

For a while, it looked like Kyoto had finally snapped the yo-yo string and settled in as a permanent J1 member. But even though their players were improving, the front office remained weak, out of touch with the strategic aspects of running a football team, and insulated against fan interests and concerns.  Kyoto did make some advances in building a stronger youth programme during the late 00s, but they failed to build the fan base or improve team finances sufficiently. In Kyoto's case this challenge was particularly urgent due to the advancing age of many key players. Some very poor personnel decisions in 2010 - particularly in terms of the amount of money spent on (ineffective) foreign players - caused the team to get off to a slow start, and rather than dealing with the real problems (a lack of talent in the roster), Kyoto took the easy way out and just fired coach Hisashi Kato. Yutaka Akita did his best in his first-ever stint as a head coach, but he did not have the materials needed to shore up the crumbling team. At the end of the season Sanga plunged back into the J2 once again.

There followed a three-season effort by former Ventforet Kofu and assistant National Team coach Takeshi Oki to make the rebound one more time. But internally, as well as on the pitch, the club had expended all its momentum. Oki took Sanga to the promotion playoffs for two consecutive seasons, but when his team failed to win a spot in J1 after two attempts, he had to take responsibility, and step down. Since his departure, at the end of 2013, the team fell even lower down the pecking order. If Kyoto is ever to escape from the yo-yo trajectory, it is going to have to change its underlying team management, and particularly, the way it promotes itself locally.

Greater Kyoto is a sprawling and populous area which ought to have enough local pride to support a strong team. But the club has never done a very effective job of promoting itself and building a fan base. During the three years that it remained in J1, it managed some slight increases in attendance but completely failed to build real loyalty. The poor player decisions simply made matters worse. When Sanga failed to bounce back to J1 quickly, as they had done before, all the young and promising talent that was accumulated during the three-year J1 spell packed up and left town. Atsutaka Nakamura moved on to a key role at J1 contenders Kashima, Takumi Miyayoshi departed early for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and then Consadole Sapporo, but after an injury-hit career so far he returned to the team, to captain them, in 2019! Taisuke Nakamura remained loyal for the longest, but in the end he was lured away by Jubilo Iwata. Since then the team has lost the likes of Yoshihiro Komai and Yuto Iwasaki to Consadole Sapporo, too.

More importantly, there is evidence that the young players that Kyoto was successfully cultivating in the early 00s are now avoiding Kyoto, and joining youth teams from larger Kansai clubs, like Gamba Osaka or Cerezo Osaka. If the Purple Phoenix ever hopes to roost in the J1 for any extended period of time, the club needs to reflect on the MEANING of the word "Sanga" (community), rather than just wearing it on their backs.

In 2019 the team has made a promising start under the tutelage of Gert Engels while keeping hold of some young talent and adding some more - Kazunari Ichimi on loan from Gamba, for example. Unfortunately, while this did boost the team back into the running for a promotion spot, a late collapse saw the Purple Phoenix fall short yet again, and the result was yet another change of coaching, but little change in content.

Kyoto has finally finished work on a football-only stadium, and hopes that this can help boost attendances in the 2020 season. But it has been a decade since the club last spent time in the top-flight, and without some changes in Kyoto's underlying approach to team-building, it could be years before they manage the climb again.

Team Results for 1996-2002

Year Rank W D L GF GA G Dif
90 ET PK
1996 6 8   0   22 22 54 -32
1997 (1st) 13 6 0 0   10 19 32 -13
1997 (2nd) 16 3 0 0   13 21 38 -17
1998 (1st) 15 4 2 0   11 20 33 -13
1998 (2nd) 11 6 2 1   8 27 30 -3
1999 (1st) 14 4 0 0   11 18 28 -10
1999 (2nd) 9 5 2 0   8 20 30 -10
2000 (1st) 16 2 0   1 12 16 36 -20
2000 (2nd) 12 5 1   1 8 23 30 -7
2001 (J2) 1 23 5   5 11 79 48 +31
2002 (1st) 6 5 4   1 5 26 18 +8
2002 (2nd) 7 6 2   0 7 18 24 -6

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 16 10 3 1 11 14 34 -20
2003 (2nd) 14 13 3 4 8 14 26 -12
2004 (J2) 5 69 19 12 13 65 53 +12
2005 (J2) 1 97 30 7 7 89 40 +49
2006 18 22 4 10 20 38 74 -36
2007 (J2) 3 86 24 14 10 80 59 21
2008 14 41 11 8 15 37 46 -9
2009 12 41 11 8 15 35 47 -12
2010 17 19 4 7 23 30 60 -30
2011 (J2) 7 58 17 7 14 50 45 +5
2012 (J2) 3 74 23 5 14 61 45 +16
2013 (J2) 3 70 20 10 12 68 46 +22
2014 (J2) 9 60 14 18 10 57 52 -5
2015 (J2) 17 50 12 14 16 45 51 -6
2016 (J2) 5 69 18 15 9 50 37 +13
2017 (J2) 12 57 14 15 13 55 47 +8
2018 (J2) 19 43 12 7 23 40 58 -18
2019 (J2) 8 68 19 11 12 59 56 +3

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.